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LAHORE: Pakistan’s politicians on Tuesday hit the campaign trail for the last time, ahead of a general election that observers say has left the nation of 240 million at its most discouraged in years.

With former prime minister Imran Khan in jail and his party barred from contesting as a bloc, the field is open for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to win the most seats and give a fourth term as premier to its founder, Nawaz Sharif.

TikTok launches ‘Pakistan Election Center’

Candidates loyal to Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party could still prove a decisive factor – as well as the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – but a generally lacklustre campaign season as well as voter apathy suggest Thursday will see a low turnout.

 Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (top C) leads an election campaign rally in Karachi on February 5, 2024, ahead of the country’s upcoming national elections. Photo: AFP
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (top C) leads an election campaign rally in Karachi on February 5, 2024, ahead of the country’s upcoming national elections. Photo: AFP

“The political atmosphere ahead of Pakistan’s first general election since 2018 is equally as glum as the economic one,” said the polling agency Gallup ahead of Thursday’s vote.

“Seven in 10 Pakistanis lack confidence in the honesty of their elections. While this ties previous highs, it nevertheless represents a significant regression in recent years.”

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Candidates must end all canvassing on Tuesday night, before polls open Thursday for more than 120 million registered voters to take part in an election rights activists have called deeply flawed.

Another trial

Looming large over the vote – despite being barred from taking part – is former international cricketer Khan, who was handed three lengthy prison sentences last week for treason, graft and a marriage that did not meet Islamic law requirements.

He faced a fresh trial starting Tuesday, this time in an anti-terrorism court, over riots led by his supporters last year.

The election comes against the backdrop of an economy in dire straits and a significant rise in militancy.

Step-by-step: an easy guide on how to cast your vote on February 8

The Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank, said there had been a “staggering” rise in militant attacks in the past year with an average 54 per month – the most since 2015, when the army launched a massive crackdown on militant groups.

 Pakistan’s former Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) party Nawaz Sharif (C) along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz (R) waves to supporters during an election campaign rally in Lahore, ahead of the upcoming general elections. Three-time Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who has never managed to see out a full term, heads into February 8 election on the brink of his biggest comeback to date. Photo: AFP
Pakistan’s former Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) party Nawaz Sharif (C) along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz (R) waves to supporters during an election campaign rally in Lahore, ahead of the upcoming general elections. Three-time Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who has never managed to see out a full term, heads into February 8 election on the brink of his biggest comeback to date. Photo: AFP

On Monday, at least 10 officers were martyred when militants attacked a police station near the Afghan border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Inflation is galloping at nearly 30 percent, the rupee has been in free fall for three years, and a balance of payments deficit has frozen imports, severely hampering industrial growth.

“Pakistanis are more discouraged than they have been in decades about a multitude of economic, political and security challenges that are threatening their country’s stability,” Gallup said its poll findings revealed.

“Last year, just one in four approved of Pakistan’s leadership.”

Frontrunner Nawaz Sharif, jailed before the 2018 election but freed to seek medical treatment in Britain, returned to Pakistan last year, and has since seen a string of convictions overturned, allowing him to run again.

Pakistan govt will not shut down internet on election day, says PTA

He was due later Tuesday to hold his final rally near Lahore, the capital of Punjab province – the country’s most populous and home to more than half the national electorate.

In a bid to sidestep a nationwide crackdown, PTI has redefined election campaigning in Pakistan with social media rallies and the use of AI technology.

 Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan’s supporters wear scarves with prints of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party as they listen to a virtual election campaign on phones at Khan’s PTI office in Islamabad. His name may not be on the ballot, but Imran Khan will be on the country’s mind as Pakistan votes in an election on February 8, 2024 that observers say is deeply flawed without his participation. Photo: AFP
Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan’s supporters wear scarves with prints of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party as they listen to a virtual election campaign on phones at Khan’s PTI office in Islamabad. His name may not be on the ballot, but Imran Khan will be on the country’s mind as Pakistan votes in an election on February 8, 2024 that observers say is deeply flawed without his participation. Photo: AFP

Stripped of its talisman cricket bat logo, the party has launched a mobile phone app that tells voters what logos are associated with its candidates, who are now effectively standing as independents.

Despite party information secretary Raoof Hassan calling it a “non-election”, supporters have been urged to vote.

“The most powerful and meaningful weapon we have is our vote,” Khan said in a message posted on his X account at the weekend.

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