A Never-Ending Election Threatens Pakistani Democracy

Pakistani voters have endured violence and digital repression as the military establishment clashes with the political party of former premier Imran Khan. They risk more mistreatment as an election approaches in either weeks or months.


Supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan clash with riot police near Khan's house to prevent officers from arresting him in Lahore on March 16, 2023.

Supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan clash with riot police near Khan's house to prevent officers from arresting him in Lahore on March 16, 2023. (Photo by Rana Sajid Hussain/Pacific Press)


On August 9, Pakistan’s National Assembly dissolved itself, starting a constitutionally mandated countdown before elections that are normally due within 90 days. A caretaker government led by Anwar ul-Haq Kakar, a close ally of the influential military, will preside in the interim. However, the polls could be delayed to 2024 as the electoral commission accounts for new census results, a decision made at the outgoing government’s behest. Whenever the polls are held, they will occur amidst an ongoing political crisis stemming from Imran Khan’s feud with the military.

The Pakistani people have suffered much of the collateral damage. As politicians vie for the upper hand, ordinary citizens have been subjected to astonishing violence, internet service disruptions, arrests, and harassment. A Pakistani human rights advocate, who requested anonymity for security reasons, warned that “the restrictive legal landscape for digital speech will also impact free discourse and dissent on social media,” a situation that bodes ill for the election.

Stoking electoral chaos

The stage for this particular crisis was set in April 2022, when Khan, who led the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, lost a no-confidence vote and the premiership. Khan’s opponents cited endemic inflation and an economy in freefall. Khan alleged interference from the military, which previously supported him, and Western powers, not least the United States. As an opposition coalition took office, Khan, who presided over his own antidemocratic turn while in power, called for a snap election and launched a wholesale campaign criticizing the military.

The authorities have since filed more than 150 criminal and civil cases against Khan, with charges ranging from tax fraud to murder. Paramilitary officers arrested Khan in May 2023, prompting widespread protests by PTI supporters. The Supreme Court ordered Khan’s release on procedural grounds, but that did not protect him from arrest in early August; another court then handed him a three-year sentence for corruption. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), which had already handed Khan a five-year ban on public office last year, promptly issued another one upon his imprisonment.

The PTI is cracking under the pressure. Thousands of supporters have been arrested since May and dozens of prominent officials have quit, some under pressure from the military. In July, a group of parliamentarians formed a breakaway faction. This heavy-handed response arguably did much to quiet dissent by the time Khan was arrested in August. The party remains in the authorities’ crosshairs as it withers, with Khan’s successor atop the PTI being detained in mid-August.

The outgoing coalition declared that a new election cannot occur until the ECP redraws the country’s electoral boundaries to account for recent census results. With the subservient ECP saying that their work will only be complete in December, the authorities have more time to crack down on the PTI.

Violence looms over the political chaos. The Islamic State militant group killed dozens in late July, when it brutally bombed a conference held by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, a partner in the outgoing coalition. Further attacks may fuel instability and give the military an excuse to intervene more directly in the election.

Digital controls tighten over Pakistan

The coming election will be decided online: Over 87 million people use the internet in a country of 241 million. But the Pakistani information space is also hazardous, with authorities maintaining tight control over the internet and undermining citizens’ ability to speak freely about politics.

Internet access is critical during an election. People rely on it to learn about candidates and political parties, share their views, and find out how to vote—except when the authorities cut the cord, that is. For instance, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) restricted mobile connectivity nationwide after Khan’s May 2023 arrest (a tactic Khan used while in office). Social networks have also been affected, with the PTA blocking access to YouTube nationwide as Khan spoke at a live-streamed PTI rally last September.

The authorities are also more direct, and punitive, in their approach. In February 2023, for example, a court sentenced a PTI supporter to three years’ imprisonment for criticizing the military via social media. Brutal harassment on social media is rife. Women journalists, particularly those who cover politics, are harassed and intimidated for their reporting, often at the urging of politicians. The Pakistani human rights advocate noted that “social media companies have not dedicated sufficient resources for adequate content moderation and emergency response, leaving users in Pakistan on their own as they navigate this turbulent political time.”

The anti-PTI coalition added to the authorities’ toolbox of control, passing a package of controversial bills before leaving office. One, the E-Safety Bill, allows for the creation of a new authority to monitor and regulate a wide variety of online content. Existing authorities possess a dismal track record of abusing their powers; in February, the PTA blocked Wikipedia for two days after the online encyclopedia refused to remove content deemed sacrilegious.

Ninety days for democracy

Pakistan’s already fragile democracy is further threatened as the authorities repress the PTI and target free expression online. To ensure the coming election’s integrity, the authorities should ensure that it is held within the constitutional 90-day limit, and they should stop punishing ordinary people for sharing their opinions about it. The military, in its drive to consolidate its position, should not overpower the voice of the Pakistani people.