AFPOpposition leader Imran Khan leaves Parliament after attending a session in Islamabad on May 23.
Islamabad: Intensifying allegations of military interference threaten to cast a shadow over Pakistan’s general election on July 25, a historic event that will mark only the country’s second ever democratic transition of power.
On Friday the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party handed over to a technocratic caretaker administration after completing a full five-year term, another democratic milestone.
But as campaigning begins, tensions between the civilian politicians and the powerful military, which has ruled for about half of Pakistan’s history since independence in 1947, are running high.
Four PML-N lawmakers said they had received threats and pressure to switch allegiance to rival parties, while newspapers are awash with accusations of military “engineering” and journalists and media houses complain of growing censorship.
“It is a chipping away. It’s behind the scenes, under the covers, below the radar,” PML-N’s outgoing Privatisation Minister Daniyal Aziz said, using typically coded language to hint at meddling by the generals without naming them.
The military, which denies interfering in politics, did not respond to a request for comment.
The political tensions come at a time of growing economic instability in the nuclear-armed nation of 208 million people.
Islamabad’s rapidly depleting currency reserves and a widening current account deficit have prompted many analysts to predict the next government will need to seek the country’s second International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout since 2013.
PML-N founder Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court as prime minister in July and now faces corruption charges, events he has described as “pre-poll rigging” aimed at denying his party another term. He has cast the campaign as a battle to protect the “sanctity of the vote”.
PML-N’s main challenge is expected to come from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who is betting his anti-corruption message will propel him to power.
Khan has denied the generals have thrown their weight behind PTI, and accuses Sharif of hiding behind such allegations to avoid accountability.
In a statement, the PTI this week said: “Any deliberate or unconscious effort to compromise the sanctity of ballot could cause irreparable damage to national interests”.
But analysts and Western diplomats who spoke to Reuters said the military was squeezing PML-N ahead of polls.
“This kind of interference has always been there, but this time it is so naked that everyone is seeing it and everyone is talking about it,” said Ijaz Khan, a retired international relations professor at Peshawar University.