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Violence mars Parkistan's political life.

Election under siege in Pakistan: democracy on the brink in the fifth largest democracy

Mak Kunwar

Amidst its nuclear arsenal and 245 million-strong populace, people of Pakistan cry out for international support to shield its democracy from its once-revered military. Politically motivated convictions of the front-runner, the former prime minister, is a mockery of justice that stifles free choice.

DEMOCRACY hung by a thread in Pakistan as polling day, 8th February, dawned.

Authoritarianism threatens the hopes of over 245 million citizens as the voters – majority are now women – desperately look to international support in their struggle for freedom, underscoring the critical juncture facing the nation. The outcome will determine whether Pakistanis can choose their own government or remain under a ‘hybrid martial law’.

Pakistan’s largest party, Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (Justice Party), with 10 million members, faces a ban ahead of the elections in the fifth largest democracy. Its charismatic leader, Imran Khan, is unjustly jailed as part of a witch-hunt orchestrated by an increasingly tyrannical behaviour of its military in a shady collusion with US establishment.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister, imprisoned and banned from contesting on bogus charges amid allegations of human and legal rights violations, remains the most popular among the electorate according to a recent Gallup poll.

He was sentenced to combined 31 years on bogus and politically motivated charges. Khan was previously “abducted” by paramilitary commandoes from a high court premises in violation of the constitution.

Military sponsored government have now doubled down, declaring Khan’s party’s activities as “war against the state. Khan has been asking for an independent and fair trial without success; his legal counsel’s house was petrol bombed. While the former prime minister could ultimately be cleared of all charges if a free trial took place, the military strategy is clearly to embroil him in a web of dubious cases to discredit his image; credibility and his unprecedented popularity among the voters – particularly the millennials and young people.

Imran Khan’s convictions, based on bogus charges and unconstitutional sentencing, after assassination attempts reportedly undertaken by military, serve as a stark example of the erosion of due process and the rule of law in Pakistan. The military-compliant judiciary hastily announced these sentences in marathon hearings, disregarding legal norms and violating Khan’s basic rights – forcing prosecutors to act as Khan’s counsel in secret; and disallowing a women’s witness statement absolving Khan. The recent verdict against Khan, invoking ‘Sharia’ law to punish him for marrying his wife, Bushra Bibi, underscores the depravity of military’s behaviour; extent of their control and disregard for legal norms. Upon hearing the judgement, Khan looked to the heavens; defiantly called the sentence politically motivated and vowed to challenge the verdict.

Imran Khan

Khan’s convictions are both illegitimate and unpopular. The biggest on-ground survey by a prominent journalist, Habib Akram, along with the Gallup survey, puts Khan’s party as a clear front runner, facing opposition from the military through gerrymandering and pre-poll rigging. Writing in a smuggled letter to The Economist before his convictions, Khan had warned that the election could be a farce and that the military is trying to rig it against his party.

The military’s stronghold in politics, judiciary, media, and foreign policy has long plagued Pakistan. Khan’s ouster from power and subsequent accusations of espionage, corruption, and treason are part of a systematic witch-hunt to suppress his supporters from voting for independents supporting Khan. The military has also repressed the media and the civil society, and has kidnapped and killed journalists, particularly who have reported on Khan and his party.

Military now supports Khan’s rival, Nawaz Sharif, and his dynastic politics to legitimise the current state of a ‘hybrid martial law’. Sharif was convicted of corruption after being named in global Panama Papers and fled to London as an absconder. Now back, pardoned and set to form the next government after a deal with military.

Those who derided Khan’s claim of a ‘regime change’ operation are now compelled to reconsider their views following the intercept’s investigate report. A view point further bolstered by an in depth analysis by Professor Jeffrey Sachs; Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University; and adviser to three United Nations Secretaries-General.

The United States must consistently uphold democratic principles and prevent military intervention in Pakistani politics to maintain stability.

The West must use all legitimate tools at their disposal to support people of Pakistan and their democratic rights. Concrete actions must be taken to pressure the Pakistani military to restore genuine democratic processes, and support independent media and civil society organisations. Independent monitoring of the elections; authenticity of results; and fair public trial for Khan who has emerged as a symbol of resistance against the authoritarian forces are essential steps to prevent further deterioration of democracy in Pakistan.


References and sources:

  1. Ball, J. (2024) ‘Secret Pakistan document undermines espionage case against Imran Khan’, The Intercept, 31 January.
  2. According to a report from the Free and Fair Election Network, Pakistan is the fifth-largest democracy in the world by population, with a voter-to-population ratio of 53.2%Based on the record 128 million registered voters for the general elections for February 8, 2024Free and Fair Election Network
  3. Twitter PublishJust Foreign Policy reporting of exchanges between journalists and US State Department: 1. On Venezuela: “It would mean that all democratic opposition political candidates could freely participate”. “We’re ready to snap back our sanctions”. On US ally Pakistan: “It’s a matter for the Pakistani courts.” 2. ‘Venezuela bans opposition candidate’. US: “We’re revoking sanctions relief”. 3. @RyanGrim presses @StateDeptSpox on discrepancy in US response to Venezuela & US ally Pakistan: “Nothing about [Imran Khan’s] prosecution seems less than kangaroo. So why would Venezuela’s be a political case, but when it comes to Pakistan, that’s a matter for the Pakistani courts?” ‘US ally Pakistan bans opposition party, jails top candidate’. US: “It’s not for the United States to dictate to Pakistan the exact specifics of how it conducts its election”
  4. Akram, H. and Jan, O.M. (2024) ‘Imran Khan’s Position in Election 2024 | Exclusive Podcast With Habib Akram | Orya Maqbool Jan’, YouTube, 30 January.
  5. Habib Akram’s Predictions about Election 2024 , Future of Imran khan and PTI | Infinity Podcast (youtube.com)
  6. The Guardian (2024) ‘Pakistan’s spy agency ISI accused of kidnapping and killing journalists’, 31 January.
  7. Civicus Monitor (2024) ‘Pakistan: Journalists and activists criminalised and abducted while government seeks more powers’, 1 February.
  8. Dawn (2024) ‘President signs bill giving military courts jurisdiction over civilians’, 31 January.
  9. The Intercept (2023) ‘Imran Khan: U.S. was manipulated by Pakistan military into backing …’, 5 June.
  10. Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees everyone the right to a trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body authorized to monitor compliance with the ICCPR, has stated that the “trial of civilians in military or special courts may raise serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice is concerned,” and that “trials of civilians by military or special courts should be exceptional, i.e. limited to cases where the State party can show that resorting to such trials is necessary and justified by objective and serious reasons, and where … regular civilian courts are unable to undertake the trials.” International human rights standards provide no basis for Pakistani authorities to try these cases in military courts, especially as the civilian courts are functioning, Human Rights Watch said. Pakistan’s military court judges are serving officials and are not independent from the government.


  1. Banning PTI – Court orders banning PTI’s iconic and traditional symbol in a country with nascent democracy and high illiteracy rate. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/pakistans-imran-khans-party-loses-cricket-bat-electoral-symbol-2024-01-14/
  2. https://www.mediadefence.org/news/the-killing-of-arshad-sharif-one-year-on-justice-remains-elusive/
  3. https://theintercept.com/2023/08/09/imran-khan-pakistan-cypher-ukraine-russia/
  4. https://globelynews.com/south-asia/imran-khan-most-popular-politician-2024-elections/
  5. https://thefridaytimes.com/06-Mar-2023/6-in-10-pakistanis-support-imran-khan-gallup-poll
  6. https://www.usip.org/publications/2019/07/moeed-yusuf-imran-khans-visit-washington
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/14/imran-khan-arrest-pakistan-military
  8. https://www.newstatesman.com/international-content/the-international-interview/2024/01/imran-khan-interview-pakistan-martial-law
  9. https://www.icij.org/investigations/panama-papers/former-pakistan-pm-sharif-sentenced-to-10-years-over-panama-papers/
  10. https://theintercept.com/2023/08/09/imran-khan-pakistan-cypher-ukraine-russia/
  11. https://www.jeffsachs.org/newspaper-articles/a8dt7m63khdptc8hw6c8xej2yxwaz5
  12. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2023/05/21/khan/
  13. https://www.rferl.org/a/pakistan-journalist-khan-released-captivity/32608607.html
  14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tcFTDAEDVo
  15. https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2024/01/04/imran-khan-warns-that-pakistans-election-could-be-a-farce
  16. https://www.irishtimes.com/world/asia-pacific/2024/02/03/imran-khan-condemns-politically-motivated-case-after-he-and-his-wife-sentenced-for-un-islamic-marriage/
  17. https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/imran-khans-party-to-challenge-7-year-sentence-in-marriage-verdict-case-4987271
  18. https://www.rferl.org/a/pakistan-jail-trial-imran-khan/32693906.html
  19. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2411726/pti-lawyers-residence-attacked-with-petrol-bombs
  20. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/30/isi-accused-of-targeting-journalists-pakistan-amnesty-international
  21. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/30/pro-imran-khan-pakistani-tv-journalist-abducted-last-week-freed
  22. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mmB6UrTAf4


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