As Pakistan gets ready to vote on 25 July, politicians have started campaigning and addressing crucial social, political and economic issues affecting the country.
Even as leaders engage in mudslinging and lash out at each other over remarks or controversies, a lot of issues will be highlighted in the Pakistan election campaign, ranging from the state of the economy to the dangerous trend of threatening and attacking journalists. Here are some of the most important issues for the Pakistan election:
The issue of corruption may just be the most important election issue this time. Most prominent Pakistani politicians are either talking about ending corruption or are involved in corruption-related controversies themselves.
Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have already been jailed in one of the four corruption cases while three other cases are pending against the father-daughter duo and other members of the Sharif family. The National Accountability Bureau had filed four cases against the father-daughter duo and other members of his family following the Supreme Court's verdict in the Panama Papers case last year. The verdict had led to the disqualification of the three-time prime minister, who also headed the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party.
According to the Joint Investigation Team report submitted in the Panama Papers case, the Sharifs had given contradictory statements about their London flats and found that the flats actually belonged to them since 1993.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan has also spoken on this issue and has, in fact, promised to end corruption at the ministerial level from his first day in governance if elected to power.
"As soon as we come to power, same day, we will curb high-level corruption. High-level corruption is what PM and ministers are involved in," The News International had quoted Khan as saying.
"Today we can hardly raise Rs 8,000 crore as tax. Inshaallah, I assure you, I will show you how we can raise Rs 8,000 billion as tax from this very country," he had further said.
Interestingly, the Peshawar High Court in Pakistan on Thursday ordered the National Accountability Bureau to investigate the Bus Rapid Transport system project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa proposed by the Khan's PTI. The cost of the project, has already been hiked from Rs 49 billion (Pakistani rupees) to Rs 64 billion, and two past deadlines have been missed. It's expected to go higher. Another NAB court is currently hearing a case against Khan of his alleged misuse of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government's helicopters.
On the other hand, Pakistan People's Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto lashed out at Khan for speaking out against corruption. He accused Khan of being corrupt himself. "Up till now Nawaz was defaming politics but now Imran Niazi has taken up this task (sic)," Geo TV quoted Bhutto as saying.
The issue of corruption is also crucial for the country because Pakistan was ranked 117th out of a total of 180 countries reviewed by international non-governmental organisation Transparency International on the basis of perceived public sector corruption, reported The Tribune.
Failing to improve its Corruption Performance Index (CPI) 2016 score of 32 (CPI uses a scale of 0 to 100 to rank countries, 0 being the most corrupt and 100 being the most transparent), Pakistan's rank has actually fallen from 116 to 117. India and China have been ranked 81 and 77 on the list, respectively.
Terrorism has always been a problem for Pakistan and its neighbours. In the run-up to the elections, politicians have become a major target for terrorists. The most recent such incident was the attack on Awami National Party (ANP) candidate Haroon Bilour who was killed along with over 100 others in a rally in Peshawar city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. In 2017, another ANP leader Abdul Razzaq and his brother Abdul Khaliq were killed while on their way to attend a public rally.
In this election, several groups who are said to be a front of known terror outfits are contesting polls.
Mumbai-terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed's son and his son-in-law are among 265 candidates fielded by the Jamaat-ud-Dawah for national and provincial Assembly seats across Pakistan. The banned group's political wing vows to make the country a "citadel of Islam," reported PTI.
The JuD, a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group that carried out the deadly 2008 Mumbai attack, launched its political front Milli Muslim League (MML).
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) denied registration of the MML as a political party following objections from the Interior Ministry which argued that the entity was an offshoot of the JuD, led by Saeed, banned by a UN resolution.
With general elections approaching, the group decided to contest on the platform of a little known "dormant" political entity, Allaha-u-Akbar Tehreek (AAT), registered with the ECP.
The nomination papers of all the MML-backed candidates have been accepted by the Returning Officers during the scrutiny process, the MML said.
Saeed's son Hafiz Talha Saeed is contesting from the NA-91 seat from Sargodha (about 200 kilometres from Lahore) while his son-in-law Khalid Waleed is contesting from the NA-133 seat in Lahore on AAT's chair election symbol.
"The support being provided to terrorist groups masquerading as political parties and religious political parties to enable them to participate in the elections is a threat to mainstream political parties," said an article in Observer Research Foundation. "The support by the deep state to religious and terrorist groups contesting elections would determine the formation of governments at the provinces and the Centre," it also said.
Pakistan has also lifted a ban on a Sunni extremist outfit and unblocked assets of its chief, in a surprise decision hours before the country was placed on the 'grey list' by the Financial Action Task Force for failing to curb anti-terror financing.
The Pakistan-based National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) had earlier issued a notification to lift the ban on Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and unfreeze the assets of its chief Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi.
Ludhianvi is the chief of ASWJ, a banned sectarian extremist group, formerly known as Sipah-e-Sahaba. He became the group's chief after the killing of his predecessor Ali Sher Haidri in a 2009 ambush.
In the 1990s, the Sipah-e-Sahaba was actively involved in a number of high profile attacks on scholars, mosques, and gatherings of the minority Shia community. The group was banned by the military dictator General Pervez Musharraf in 2002. The group reemerged under the name of ASWJ.
The removal of the ban on the group comes as a surprise amid international pressure on Pakistan to dismantle terror sanctuaries on its soil.
Fears have also mounted over Pakistan's economic stability before elections as the caretaker government pledged to stem the current account deficit by using rapidly dwindling foreign currency reserves, reported AFP.
There is growing speculation that the country will have to seek a loan package from the International Monetary Fund following the elections, for the second time since 2013, amid fears of a balance of payments crisis.
"We have to finance this gap of the trade deficit of $25 billion by depleting our reserves. There is no other option," caretaker Finance Minister Shamshad Akhtar had told a press conference. "This is a major worry which our government is facing."
The announcement came hours after the central bank devalued the rupee by 3.7 percent, the third devaluation since December.
Pakistan relies heavily on imports and has struggled for decades to increase exports, with chronic power shortages and creaky infrastructure hampering growth.
It is also saddled with a heavy public debt — 70 percent of GDP — along with a yawning fiscal deficit. The economy grew by 5.8 percent during 2017-18, missing a government target by two percent, according to documents from the finance ministry.
Pakistan, plagued for years by a bloody homegrown Taliban insurgency, has been battling to get its shaky economy back on track and end the energy crisis crippling industry.
Confidence has grown slightly in recent years, with security improving and the IMF claiming in October that the country has emerged from crisis after completing the bailout programme. The growth in GDP comes amid structural reforms, an improved energy sector and China's ambitious multi-billion dollar infrastructure project — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — linking its western province of Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea via Pakistan.
Ties with India
Pakistan's ties with India probably make up the most complex part of each of the two countries' foreign policy.
On 3 July, Hafiz Saeed hit out at Pakistani politicians, calling them puppets of India and the United States. "If we decide to vote for the slaves of the United States and the friends of (Prime Minister of India) Narendra Modi, then we are digging our own graves," ANI quoted Saeed as saying.
"India, sitting in Afghanistan supported by the United States is planning to divide Pakistan. My brothers of Okara, maybe you don't have much knowledge about the ground reality, you only know what has reached you through media, but let me tell you I have met many in Balochistan, I have walked through the streets of Balochistan, and I have understood that India is trying to divide Balochistan from Pakistan," he also said.
On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif's brother and PML-N chief Shehbaz Sharif has asked India to resume peace talks with Islamabad, saying the Singapore summit between the US and North Korea should set a good precedent for both the bickering neighbours to follow.
It's time for comprehensive peace talks in our region. International community must focus on the peace process in Afghanistan. Dialogue b/w Pakistan & India over Kashmir should also resume, so that the long-festering Kashmir dispute is resolved in accordance with UN resolutions.
— Shehbaz Sharif (@CMShehbaz) June 12, 2018
This is a rare statement from Shehbaz on India, despite the fact that his elder brother (Nawaz) whose one of the major reasons behind his ouster, as many political pundits say, was his efforts to normalise ties with New Delhi, according to PTI.
Shehbaz, who is PML-N's prime ministerial candidate, also asked India to leave behind the past tensions between the arch-rivals and starts afresh.
The PML-N chief said if his party returns to power in 25 July elections, it will promote peace in the region with a focus on Afghanistan.
Clearly, India is on a lot of minds in Pakistan before the polls. And even though it is too soon to say how the election will influence Pakistan's ties with India, the early signs are positive.
For example, India and Pakistan are currently working on a few humanitarian steps, like the release of fishermen found across their maritime boundaries, reported Livemint.
The Times of India also reported that over 160 Pakistani pilgrims are expected to arrive in India for the death anniversary of Amir Khusro. This is important because India had denied a similar visit by Pakistani pilgrims in the recent past.
Threat to journalists
Facing abductions, censorship and financial ruin, journalists in Pakistan say they are under unprecedented pressure from authorities ahead of nationwide polls, sparking allegations the military is overseeing a "silent coup", reported AFP.
Media houses describe a sustained campaign by the security establishment ahead of the 25 July election to curb their coverage.
Those who refuse to toe the line are increasingly targeted while their employers face financial blowback, sparking widespread self-censorship.
"We have never witnessed the censorship which we are facing today," said Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and activists, and there have long been red lines, but the uptick in pressure is seen as brazen and extraordinary.
The country's largest broadcaster Geo TV was partially forced off air for weeks this year until it reportedly cut a deal with the military to adjust its coverage, according to local and international media.
And Pakistan's oldest newspaper Dawn complains its sellers are being "threatened and coerced by state institutions" following an interview with Nawaz in May, where he suggested Pakistani militants were behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks which killed 166 people.
Such pressure on two of Pakistan's most powerful media houses is a clear message, says Waseem Abbasi, a correspondent for The News: "Other outlets have no chance. So basically they're also falling in line."
Foreign envoys have also privately aired concerns, fearing for stability in the polarised country as polls approach.
"There is clearly a concerted effort to muzzle the media in Pakistan," a diplomatic source requesting anonymity told AFP. "This is deeply concerning."
Updated Date: Jul 20, 2018 12:52:35 IST