Pakistan’s People Will Vote Under a Cloud of Repression

Pakistan is due to hold national elections on February 8, but the country’s most popular politician, Imran Khan, is in jail, while his supporters face escalating repression. The country is in the middle of a crisis of democracy.

Army personnel patrol along a road ahead of the upcoming general elections in Islamabad, Pakistan, on February 5, 2024. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP via Getty Images)

Elections for a new parliament are finally due to take place in Pakistan on February 8. Much uncertainty still surrounds the polls. Not for the first time, Pakistan heads into elections with a popular politician — indeed its currently most popular politician, Imran Khan — behind bars, while his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is subject to coercion and in a state of disarray.

No political leader in recent history enjoyed such warm relations with Pakistan’s military establishment as Khan until just three years ago. Yet no leader in recent history has fallen so far out of the praetorian guard’s favor as Khan and his party have now.

Elections that were due to be held in November were postponed until February, ostensibly for the redrawing of electoral constituencies in light of fresh census results. The militarized ruling bloc, in the throes of its deepest crisis in half a century, has used the delay to undermine Khan’s popularity and attempt to establish some semblance of economic and political coherence.

Targeting Khan

The military and other parts of the state apparatus have gone after Khan and his (already-thin) party apparatus with a vengeance. Members of the PTI’s second- and third-tier leadership and party workers have been jailed, tortured, or intimidated into silence, with many coerced or seduced into joining rump parties propped up by the military establishment. The PTI’s rallies and fundraisers (virtual and otherwise) have been suppressed through widespread censorship of media and the internet.

Legal gymnastics and shenanigans bordering on the farcical have been deployed to obstruct the nominations of numerous PTI candidates (and, on a smaller scale, some left-wing and progressive figures contesting the election). In some cases, undercover intelligence agents outside the election commission’s offices attempted to snatch and run away with candidates’ nomination papers in a childish game of hide-and-seek. Constituency delimitations themselves have been manipulated to arguably dilute the vote of popular forces, especially in urban areas where Khan’s party has overwhelming support.

More seriously, the election commission and higher judiciary have stripped the PTI of its widely recognized electoral symbol — the cricket bat — on the basis of technicalities regarding internal party elections. This decision has effectively taken the PTI out of the electoral running as a political party, forcing its candidates to run as independents and preventing the party from fielding candidates in indirectly elected seats for women and minorities.

The fact that a judicial bench led by current chief justice Qazi Faez Isa, himself a victim of past military manipulations, announced this patently targeted verdict is testament to the forces within the state apparatus arrayed against Khan and the PTI.

Khan himself has now been sentenced to over a decade in jail in successive cases of corruption and even treason (over allegations that he leaked secret diplomatic cables). Charges of monetary aggrandizement through the sale of diplomatic gifts — a common practice among all sections of Pakistan’s political elite — have been weaponized to target those who are currently out of favor with the ruling bloc. Ironically, Khan was sentenced by the same judge who convicted his archrival and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 2018 in a previous example of targeted deployment of corruption charges.

Unfinished Business

Despite the legal and physical suppression, however, support for Khan remains high, especially among young people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. This cohort accounts for nearly half the electorate and all of the ten million new voters who have been added to the rolls since the last election.

The army leadership and its civilian auxiliaries in the caretaker government have been busy visiting universities and youth conventions in order to justify the ramping up of suppression. Khan’s personal popularity also remains high in the core areas of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Karachi, which collectively return the majority of seats in parliament. This remains the case even as political brokers and middlemen who are sensitive to cajolements of the establishment desert the PTI to find space in the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) party, which is back in favor with Pakistan’s state managers.

Khan’s retention of his core middle-class base, his widening popular appeal due to Pakistan’s escalating economic crises, and the military’s own long-standing support for the PTI project have also created serious rifts within the state apparatus. Since Khan’s initial arrest last year triggered attacks by PTI supporters on key military installations in urban areas, there has been a systematic campaign by the army leadership to purge the officer ranks of Khan sympathizers. Several senior retired officers have been stripped of their substantial perks and pensions, while others have been coerced into silence for fear of losing the same.

Despite the pre-poll manipulations, then, much remains uncertain about the outcome on election day itself. However, divisions between supporters and opponents of Khan reflect deep-rooted historical fault lines within Pakistan’s polity and society. It is the open emergence of these fault lines that condition the ruling bloc’s desperate search for coherence that is now underway.

Fault Lines

The imperial moorings of the Pakistani ruling bloc have come loose over the last decade. Having sustained itself during the previous half century through a certain kind of dependent insertion into the world system — primarily by selling its labor and military services to imperial and subimperial powers — Pakistan now faces an intractable economic crisis following the decline of US largesse and diminishing returns from Chinese investment.

The Pakistani state’s fiscal and foreign exchange accounts are in tatters. It owes nearly $130 billion to foreign entities. Among these, multilateral institutions and China are now Pakistan’s biggest creditors, with each accounting for over 20 percent of Pakistan’s foreign debt. However, it is the proportion of short-term and highly onerous debt held by foreign, private, commercial banks that is most alarming.

This burden has grown almost sevenfold over the last decade and now accounts for almost 60 percent of Pakistan’s annual debt servicing, although it only represents 23 percent of total foreign debt. Foreign debt servicing accounted for close to 35 percent of Pakistan’s export earnings last year, and debt servicing amounts are set to double in the next five years.

Combined foreign and domestic debt servicing takes up almost all the revenue generated by the Pakistani state through taxation. Much touted foreign direct investment from Western, Gulf, and Chinese sources remains low and mostly goes into tertiary and consumer sectors, which have limited labor-absorbing and productivity-enhancing effects. With foreign aid falling sharply — from a high of almost $4 billion a year in the 2000s to about $1 billion a year recently — and a ruling elite unwilling to sacrifice its short-term interests (for example, through increased direct taxation of elites), the inevitable result is a ruling combine flailing about for funds and bailouts.

Here too, limited International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailouts have been obtained only by groveling to the United States and surreptitiously supplying weapons to Ukraine. The latest round of austerity, building upon the Khan government’s own IMF-prompted cost-cutting and demand compression, has resulted in levels of inflation unprecedented for at least half a century. In the last year alone, cuts in subsidies and currency devaluation have led to a tenfold increase in gas prices and a doubling in the cost of many basic food items. Unemployment among young graduates stands at 33 percent, in addition to a full 23 percent working in “unpaid jobs.”

Meanwhile, the corporate sector registered its highest ever quarterly earnings between July and September last year, with the banking sector being the biggest beneficiary. A recent UN report calculated governmental subsidies for Pakistan’s elites to be worth almost $17 billion per year. Pakistani-style austerity thus translates into grinding poverty for the poor, belt-tightening for the middle classes, and handsome profits for the rich.

Dispossession and Diversion

Within this narrowing economic order comes a renewed round of dispossession and the militarized ruling bloc’s desperate search for imperial succor. At the end of 2022, in response to a long-standing dispute with international mining conglomerates, the outgoing parliament itself effectively reversed hard-earned federal reforms of Pakistan’s political structure by introducing a law that exempted “qualified foreign investments” from local scrutiny. De jure and threadbare mechanisms of democratic inclusion are thus being sacrificed at the altar of the ruling bloc’s de facto dependence on (and search for) renewed imperial moorings.

In line with long-standing attempts at economic and political centralization in Pakistan, the army leadership has become deeply embroiled in development planning and economic decision-making at home, and in wooing investors from abroad. Last year, a Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) was created with the army leadership at its helm to attract $12 billion of foreign investment annually in primary sectors, mostly from Gulf dictatorships. The SIFC’s aim to cut “red tape” for foreign investors has seen it become a “clearing house” for negotiating and even bypassing issues of bureaucratic and federal coordination.

However, even with such concessions, claims of massive pending investment from “friendly countries” have not materialized. Indeed, in light of global capitalist stagnation (including a slowdown in China), it remains a moot point if the ruling bloc’s wish for insertion into the world system on renewed, investment-focused terms can deliver the requisite economic dynamism for absorbing Pakistan’s vast reserves of youthful labor.

Meanwhile, the SIFC and its minions have resorted to accelerating privatization of public assets and enterprises. This includes large swathes of land in Pakistan’s central and peripheral areas being taken over by the military for experiments in “agricultural modernization.”

At the same time, in the face of such crisis and rapaciousness, the authorities have undertaken an aggressive distraction campaign to deport over a million Afghan refugees in Pakistan back to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, after they were displaced from a homeland in whose destruction the Pakistani ruling bloc (in alliance with the United States) has played no small part. The demonization of these refugees as criminals, terrorists, and “fifth columnists” has been ongoing for many years.

During the 2010s, the number of Afghans in Pakistan went down from a high point of eight million to less than half that figure, in what Human Rights Watch described in 2017 as “the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times.” This process has now accelerated, with authorities even attempting to charge those seeking refuge in Western countries a fine of over $800 to leave Pakistan.

It is the deeper incoherence of the ruling bloc that is driving these coercive machinations. What cannot be managed at the social and economic levels must be compensated for at the levels of ideology and politics. Economic incoherence, ideological overdrive, and political suppression thus mark Pakistan’s latest tryst with the exercises of procedural democracy.

Between Despair and Resistance

Pakistan’s burgeoning youth population had its hopes and aspirations raised by Imran Khan’s ambiguous populism and fiery rhetoric over the last decade. It now sees a situation with no escape, except for settlement abroad.

This has prompted a desperate search for opportunities to emigrate to increasingly hostile Gulf or Euro-American destinations. A record eight hundred thousand people left Pakistan in the first half of 2023 alone, while the caretaker prime minister declared this massive brain drain to be an “asset” for the country. Almost three hundred such “assets” recently became victims of Fortress Europe and the treacherous Mediterranean sea.

Pakistan’s youth have moved from insurgency to despondency. As one young comrade put it recently, “zameen hum per tang ho chuki hai” — “the land has shrunk upon us.” It is this literal and metaphorical shrinking of the land that results in myriad intense but distinct struggles popping up in both central and peripheral Pakistan.

The historical brutalization of Balochistan province for its mineral resources, along with a record of political suppression that includes the forced disappearances of hundreds, if not thousands, of Baloch people, has resulted in a popular movement for autonomy and self-determination.

The movement’s bases in Baloch civil society are now fortified and maintained by young female political workers of the Baloch Solidarity Committees (BYC), who recently led a long march of families of the disappeared to the federal capital, Islamabad. Their camp outside the national press club was hounded by police and intelligence agencies for over a month, even while they aroused popular sympathy and forged crucial linkages with other dispossessed peoples in the federal capital.

On January 26–27, this caravan of the snubbed and dispossessed led by a young doctor, Mahrang Baloch, returned to Balochistan to a mass public welcome. Widespread acclaim for Baloch and her comrades is testament to the gap between popular aspirations and elite callousness in this most brutalized part of Pakistan.

In the northern Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region, a movement for territorial autonomy has grown on the back of mass protests against cutbacks to subsidies on basic food items. During the colonial era, GB was jointly administered by the British and the Jammu and Kashmir princely state. It gained autonomy at the time of partition on the back of a popular revolt.

Officially, however, the Pakistani state designated it as part of Kashmir, with the aim of increasing pro-Pakistan votes in a future UN-managed plebiscite in the disputed region. The region has long been kept in a state of constitutional limbo by the Pakistani state, with its quasi-provincial status and the aforementioned subsidies acting as fig leaves over bureaucratic control from the center in the tradition of Britain’s imperial viceroyalty.

GB also faces the brunt of Pakistan’s ongoing climate catastrophe and the ruling bloc’s land-grabbing voraciousness for foreign investment and tourism. Popular anger, historically expressed in poetic idioms of betrayal and love, is now graduating to mass protests and demands for constitutional autonomy.

In central Pakistan, the shift of mood from insurgency to despondency is most obviously reflected in the PTI’s travails. Here too, however, the Haqooq-e-Khalq Party (HKP) led by the left-wing activist-intellectuals Ammar Ali Jan and Muzamil Kakar is building an inspiring popular campaign against mass anomie and alienation. In a working-class constituency of Lahore, the heart of Pakistan’s core Punjab province, Jan, Kakar, and the HKP have built a campaign based on years of neighborhood organizing, embedded in peoples’ everyday lives.

Though limited to one area of a big city, even a small, people-powered break in the stasis of patronage politics in central Punjab could go a long way toward catalyzing the confidence of oppressed social groups throughout Pakistan. It is in the deepening of these popular and youthful mobilizations, and linking them with a program of economic redistribution and delinking, that hope resides for the country, if there is to be any. Much now rests on the young shoulders of the Mahrangs, Kakars, and Jans of Pakistan.

An Iron Hand

Such then is the terrain of society and polity in Pakistan on the eve of February’s election. There is a ruling bloc in desperate need of imperial and social moorings, at odds with Pakistani society, and reliant on repression that grows wider and deeper. It faces a citizenry who have been mostly demobilized and held in coercive thrall by praetorian overlords, yet capable of generating uneven levels of mass protest and deep organizing in response to such suppression and dispossession.

The search for political legitimacy and economic coherence — not least the imperatives of yet another IMF bailout — will see some kind of electoral exercise go ahead. However, despite popular despondency and coercive manipulations, turnout levels and final outcomes on polling day are always uncertain — and can result in upsets for the ruling bloc. Whispered inducements for an iron hand, temptations for the permanent Party of Order, never lurk far from the generals’ ears.