The common perception in Pakistan about the upcoming February 8 general elections is that the results have already been decided. The powerful military establishment, say many citizens who spoke with DW, wants to keep ex-PM Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party out of power at any cost.
"I am not planning to cast my vote. I support Imran Khan and he is not eligible to contest elections. That is why I am not interested in these polls," said Aliya Durrani, an Islamabad resident.
Khan, possibly the most popular politician in Pakistan, is barred from standing in the polls. He has been sentenced for many years in multiple cases related to corruption and leaking state secrets. But opinion polls have put his PTI party ahead of its main rivals — the Pakistan Muslim League (N) of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People's Party headed by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, son of slain ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Harris Khalique, secretary-general of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the PTI is "undoubtedly a major popular party" in Pakistan.
"If elections are held in a free and fair manner, the PTI will win most seats in parliament from big cities. But I don't see them sweeping the elections. So, this hype on social media is a little overstated, Khan's popularity is a little overstated," Khalique underlined.
Khan's falling out with the military
At the heart of the upcoming polls is a popular ex-premier who is challenging the military generals' iron grip on power.
In 2018, Khan's opponents had accused the military establishment of paving his path to office. But by the time an April 2022 no-confidence vote saw Khan ousted from the government, there was growing tension between him and the generals. Khan blamed the military — which has ruled Pakistan collectively for over three decades — for orchestrating the vote.
Khan also alleged that the US colluded with the military and his rival political parties to remove him from the premiership, a claim Washington has categorically denied.
After a year-long confrontation with the military, Khan's supporters took to the streets across the country to protest his arrest. The protests turned violent. Some rioters began attacking military facilities and rampaging through army residential areas.
"I believe it [the riots] was a sentiment of the public and the workers [party activists]. It was not managed well, I believe, and it has made a major difference in the political scenario of Pakistan," Shahriyar Riaz, a PTI official in Rawalpindi city, admitted in an interview with DW.
The incidents, dubbed the "May 9 riots," appeared to be a line in the sand for the Muslim-majority country's powerful army and a sign of a much-changed relationship.
In the months following the riots, authorities started trying suspected protesters, including PTI members, in military courts. Droves of PTI senior and mid-level party officials announced their resignations and declared their backing for the military.
"PTI was building a narrative already right from when Khan was removed through a vote of no-confidence. On May 9, we found an orchestrated assault on the state," [retired] Brigadier Waqar Hassan Khan told DW.
In recent weeks, there have been reports of potential PTI candidates being stopped from submitting nomination papers and the Supreme Court prohibiting the party from using its iconic cricket bat electoral symbol.
The events have made the upcoming elections extremely controversial, with Khan's aides and some analysts alleging pre-election rigging.
"Elections should be held in a free, fair and transparent manner. Whoever gets elected should make decisions that create a positive impact on people's livelihoods," Harris Khalique said.
Iqra Rafique, who works at a beauty salon, said she wants the elections to be conducted freely so that the country's next prime minister is chosen "according to the will of the people."
Noreen Shams, a Karachi-based journalist, said Pakistan's entire history is full of "engineered" elections.
"What is happening now also happened in previous elections as well. Those who were the favorites of the powers that be are now villains; those who were villains in 2018 (ex-PM Sharif) are now their favorites," she told DW.
Pakistan has always had a hybrid form of government with the elected representatives of the people sharing power with the military, Shams added.
What happens next?
The upcoming elections, however, are not just about the popularity of a party or a politician; there is a lot more at stake as Pakistan reels from a serious financial crisis, high inflation, unemployment and environmental catastrophes.
It's left some concerned that the general public is so focused on trying to make ends meet that they are quite uninterested in the upcoming elections.
Saira Khan, a schoolteacher in Islamabad, said "it doesn't matter who comes to power."
"Anybody who comes to power needs to bring political stability to the country, and it is not possible without developing trust among the public. So, elections are important, but I don't think it will make much difference," Khan said.
In the current scenario, former PM Nawaz Sharif is favorite to win the February 8 elections. His Pakistan Muslim League Party argues that the country's economy and politics cannot afford the PTI's return to power.
"Khan and his party have completely exposed their mindset. They will never allow Pakistan's institutions to function independently. They spent a considerable time in both opposition and government but have shown intense hatred for [security] institutions, launching verbal attacks and resorting to physical assaults," Tariq Fazal Choudhry, a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) official, told DW.
The events preceding, on, and after May 9, 2023, saw the country's powerful military clearly removing its support from PTI, but this couldn't stop popular support for Imran Khan. It's unclear who will govern the country following the elections, but what is clear is that whichever party does, will have the military to contend with.
If this is PTI — and they are unable or unwilling to patch up their fraught relationship with the military — the country will likely be once again entering shaky political territory.
Additional reporting by Ali Kaifee in Islamabad.
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru