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Pakistan election 2018: Choice between Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif’s party but neither may win majority today

Pakistan elections 2018: Pakistan’s powerful military, which has ruled for much of the nation’s history, has faced accusations during the campaign of intimidating critics and reporters to elect a pliant government.

world Updated: Jul 25, 2018 10:44 IST
Pakistan elections,Imran Khan,Nawaz Sharif
Army soldier stands guards where electoral workers gather to collect election materials at distribution point, ahead of general election in Peshawar, Pakistan.(Reuters Photo)

Pakistan goes to the polls Wednesday in a closely fought election that will determine the course of the nuclear-armed nation central to US anti-terrorism efforts and China’s global infrastructure ambitions. (Live Updates)

Surveys show none of the top three parties winning a majority, paving the way for horse-trading to form a government after results come in late Wednesday. Pakistan’s powerful military -- which has ruled for much of the nation’s history -- has faced accusations during the campaign of intimidating critics and reporters to elect a pliant government. It has denied the allegations.

Imran Khan, the celebrated former cricketer turned anti-corruption crusader, had the momentum heading into the election, and is seen as the military’s top choice for prime minister despite his denials. His main rival is a party helmed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has clashed repeatedly with the military over the years and was jailed this month on corruption charges, which he is appealing.

No matter who triumphs, Pakistan’s next leader will need to grapple with the generals over control of foreign policy and national security -- two areas that determine relations with the US and China. They must also deal with a mounting economic crisis: four currency devaluations since December have made it likely the next government will need to seek another International Monetary Fund bailout.

“While the army will continue to retain control, a pliant civilian government, which it will get in Khan, will allow it to have nearly unchecked power,” said Shailesh Kumar, Asia director with political risk firm Eurasia Group. “This is consequential given that relations with India -- and the world -- are at all time lows, and could be a catalyst for further bad behaviour, and in turn cause additional security challenges in the region.”

Pakistan’s army has long worried that a civilian government could make overtures to India and Afghanistan, ultimately reducing the need for a powerful military -- and the largesse that comes with it. Under President Donald Trump, the US has suspended military aid amid allegations Pakistan’s army supports proxy groups striking inside India and Afghanistan, complicating America’s longest war.

Pakistan’s military denies those claims and has sought to keep ties with the US from deteriorating further: It still allows the American military overland access to Afghanistan, for instance. Even so, any party that wins is likely to shift ever closer to China, which has offered more than $60 billion to finance Pakistan infrastructure projects.

Workers, who set up the venue, sit under a wall with a billboard displaying photo of Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), political party, as they listen to him during a campaign rally ahead of general elections in Karachi. ( Reuters Photo )

Vote counting is likely to stretch into the early-morning hours. There are 270 seats parliamentary seats out of 342 up for grabs, with 60 seats reserved for women and 10 for minorities. A party or coalition needs 136 seats to form government.

A Gallup Pakistan poll in early July showed Khan closing the gap with Sharif’s party, which is campaigning on its record of boosting infrastructure spending, improving security and reducing power cuts. Khan has pledged to turn Pakistan into an “Islamic welfare state” by building five million affordable homes within five years, while raising tax collection and improving the business environment.

“If you asked me six months ago, I would have said Imran Khan has no chance of winning” but it’s now a “neck-to-neck election,” said Mattias Martinsson, a money manager overseeing a total of $420 million of assets at Stockholm-based Tundra Fonder AB. Khan represents uncertainty for investors, particularly if he comes down hard on businesses, he added, but in the long run change might be beneficial for the country.

Pakistan’s rapidly deteriorating finances will be top of the agenda for the next government. The currency -- the worst performer in Asia -- has been devalued 15 percent since December. The central bank has raised interest rates, the current-account gap has widened by 43 percent in the last fiscal year and foreign-exchange reserves are dropping.

“The economy is facing extreme stress,” said Asad Umar, a member of Khan’s party favored to be finance minister if he forms a government. “There is a need for urgent structural reforms.”

Short terms measures include going to the IMF or seeking fresh funds from China, Umar said, while boosting industry and agriculture over the long term. Miftah Ismail, a former finance minister from Sharif’s party, said in an interview he would tap the bond market first before going to the IMF.

Khan’s party -- Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice -- has struck a chord with voters.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)

First Published: Jul 25, 2018 07:56 IST