ASIA/PAKISTAN - Parliamentary elections marked by economic crisis and political tensions

Tuesday, 6 February 2024 politics   religious minorities   human rights   islam   political islam  

Islamabad (Agenzia Fides) - Next February 8, the federal parliament, the so-called National Assembly, and the legislative assemblies of four provinces will be elected in Pakistan. The voters include 128 million eligible citizens over the age of 18, out of a population of 241 million. There are 5,121 candidates running for the federal parliament and 12,695 for the provincial assemblies.
Of the 336 National Assembly seats, 266 are directly elected on election day, while 70 reserved seats - 60 for women and 10 for non-Muslim religious minorities - are allocated based on the percentage each party achieves in parliament. After the election and constitution, the National Assembly elects the Prime Minister, who must achieve a simple majority in the Chamber. A similar process is used at the provincial level to elect the prime minister and government of each province. At the federal level, among the 44 political parties, the favorites are two former prime ministers and a third who is in prison.
Business tycoon, multimillionaire and three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League comes from one of the families that have dominated Pakistani politics for decades. Imran Khan, the 2018 election winner from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, is the former Prime Minister who has been in prison since August 2023 and was sentenced to various prison terms last week. And 72-year-old Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, who replaced Imran Khan as prime minister in April 2022. Last but not least, one of the favorites is Bilawal Bhutto (35), son of Benazir Bhutto, who was murdered in 2007, and is the candidate of the Pakistan People's Party. The government of the South Asian country, which has been hit by a severe economic crisis in recent years, is facing several challenges. Last summer, Pakistan staved off default thanks to a $3 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but the support ends in March, leaving the country in need of a new aid program. "Quickly negotiating a new program will be critical for the new government as it takes control of an economy plagued by record inflation and slow growth," says Australian missionary Father Robert Mc Culloch of the Society of St. Columba, who has been working in the country for more than 30 years and was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of St. Elizabeth Hospital, a Catholic hospital in Hyderabad, a top facility in southern Pakistan. "The new executive will have to tread a narrow path to recovery, but one that will limit policy options to provide relief to a deeply frustrated and impoverished population, while on the other hand seeking to boost industry to stimulate growth," he notes. In the country, the missionary said, "political tensions were high in the run-up to the elections, especially because of what former Prime Minister Imran Khan called the 'crackdown' against him and his party." Another issue that is always important is the role of the military on the political stage, which in recent years has also been formalized in the economic sphere with the presence of military exponents in the "Special Investment Facilitation Council", a body headed by the former Pakistani prime minister Shehbaz Sharif with the aim of attracting foreign investments and promoting the country's economic growth. In the country's recent history, elected governments have been overthrown several times through military intervention (there have been three military coups since independence in 1947) or through indirect pressure from the generals. On the other hand, attacks by militant and Islamist groups have increased in the last 18 months: these groups - particularly the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - have regrouped following the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in 2021 and a number of high-profile attacks carried out on Pakistani soil. Added to this is the ethno-nationalist insurgency in Balochistan, a province in the southwest, which is also directed against the interests of Pakistan's main ally, China, which has promoted strategic investments in the port of Gwadar for the Silk Road project. In Pakistani society, Father McCulloch concluded, the question of cultural, ethnic and religious discrimination remains open, which non-Muslim groups and communities (particularly Christians and Hindus) have put back on the public agenda on the eve of the election. He hopes that "all political parties will include the issue of protecting the rights of minorities and their well-being in their political agenda" and recalls that "since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, non-Muslim citizens have played a key role in the development, prosperity and economic, social and cultural flourishing of the country". (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 6/2/2024)