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Pakistan elections: Nawaz Sharif frontrunner as polls open

Pakistan election staff prepare a polling station in Lahore

Pakistan election staff prepare a polling station in Lahore

  • More than 128 million voters are registered
  • Key issues include the economic crisis, security issues and the power of the military
  • The projected frontrunner is former premier Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League
  • Former prime minister Imran Khan is barred from running
  • At least 26 people were killed in a bomb blast in Balochistan on the eve of the election

'Law and order is collapsing' but Pakistan 'determined to have elections'

Pakistan's former ambassador to the United Kingdom and the Ireland has said the bombings on the eve of the country's parliamentary elections suggest a "collapse in law and order" and undermine efforts to establish a democratic process.

"These violent groups which are committing so much violence throughout Pakistan are very deliberately targeting the electoral process in order to disrupt what is happening," Akbar Ahmed told DW.

"This causes a lot of dismay, anger and confusion, and just adds to the sense of the elections being a very, very difficult exercise — the violence, the lack of faith in the process, the general sense in the public that the elections may be rigged, may not be fair and free."

Nevertheless, he said he saw Pakistan as "a nation determined to have elections," something which he believes should be important to the West.

"[Pakistan is] a nation of 230-240 million people," he said. "It's the only nuclear country in the Muslim world. It had the first female Prime Minister. Geopolitically, it has India on one side, China on the other, and Iran and Afghanistan on its western borders.

"So, in spite of all the crises, in spite of the problems, I think the West should be encouraged that Pakistan is ensuring that elections take place as freely and fairly as possible."

What are the issues?

Pakistan's new government will have their work cut out for them, and foremost on any agenda will be addressing an ongoing economic crisis.

Pakistan currently faces high unemployment combined with skyrocketing prices of basic goods and energy.

This is compounded by political turmoil, with many voters saying they believe the contest has been decided in advance by Pakistan's powerful military.

Voter apathy has been reflected in a lackluster campaign season in the run up to voting day.

Security issues are another problem, with militant attacks occurring at a greater frequency in recent months.

In the latest incident on Wednesday, two bombings in Balochistan province killed at least 26 people. An offshoot of the so-called "Islamic State" claimed responsibility for one of the blasts.

Authorities have said they are boosting security at polling booths following the attacks.

Who are the main contenders?

Forty-four political parties will compete, but the projected frontrunner is the Pakistan Muslim League, led by three-time former premier Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan from exile last year.

Sharif is currently considered as the top contender to become prime minister, and analysts say his return comes with the backing of Pakistan's powerful military establishment.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, could play the role of kingmaker if no single party wins enough seats to form a government outright.

Independent candidates have the option to join any party after the elections.

However, former cricket star Imran Khan is barred from running, and is currently serving a jail-term on charges linked to corruption and revealing state secrets.

Khan was ousted in an April 2022 no-confidence vote, ostensibly after falling out with Pakistan's military establishment.

Candidates from Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are essentially barred from running under the party banner, and appear on the ballot as independents.

Critics say Pakistan's military has conspired to keep Khan and the PTI away from the levers of power, and therefore have questioned the election's legitimacy.

How does the election work?

Polls opened on Thursday in Pakistan's 12th general elections, with more than 128 million registered voters eligible to choose the South Asian country's next government.

Voting will take place for 336 seats in the federal legislature, called the National Assembly, and for 749 seats in state legislatures called the Provincial Assembly, comprising Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh provinces.

In the federal legislature, 266 seats are decided on polling day, and 70 seats (60 for women/10 for non-Muslims) are allotted according to each party's strength.

The election primarily uses a first-past-the-post electoral system.

After the election, the new parliament will choose the country's next prime minister. If no party wins an outright majority, then the one with the biggest share of assembly seats can form a coalition government.

The new prime minister picks cabinet ministers, who form the federal government.

When can we expect results?

Polls are scheduled to open at 8 a.m (03:00 UTC) and voting will continue until 5 p.m local time.

Ballots will be counted soon after polls close, and tentative, unofficial results are expected to emerge within a few hours.

The Election Commission of Pakistan is required by law to publish official results within 14 days of the election.

However, official results could be announced as early as Friday.

The latest official results could be announced is Thursday, February 22.