On July 25, Pakistan is set to hold a general election, with an elected government having completed its full five-year term for the second consecutive time. What should have been a celebration of democracy consolidation in the country, however, has turned into a period of instability and uncertainty amid allegations that the military is manipulating the electoral landscape. Here are some of the main factors shaping Pakistan’s 2018 election, and what we know and what we don’t.

Violence returns

In recent years, thanks largely to military offensives against the Pakistan Taliban (also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) that have weakened the group, terrorist attacks and fatalities have fallen drastically in the country. However, the current election campaign, with a week to go, has been marred by greater violence than Pakistan has seen in recent months. On July 10, a TTP-claimed attack in Peshawar killed one of the leaders of the Awami National Party, Haroon Bilour, along with 21 others. Mr. Bilour’s father was also assassinated in 2012 by the TTP. The ANP is a largely secular, Pashtun party that has held power in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KPK) multiple times, most recently from 2008 to 2013.

Last Friday, July 13, an attack in Mastung, Baluchistan, killed nearly 150 people, and injured scores more. This ISIS-claimed blast targeted a Baluch Awami Party meeting, and killed one of its leaders, Siraj Raisani, and more than a hundred party workers.

Though Raisani was a known nationalist (from Baluchistan, a province racked by a separatist insurgency), it is notable that both parties that were attacked are regional ones. Terrorist violence doesn’t target Pakistan’s dozens of parties in equal measure—partly because of variable security provided by the state and partly because terrorists tend to target parties and politicians that lean secular, although Islamist parties have come under attack periodically as well.

The three parties in play

Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, holds 141 of the 272 directly elected electoral constituency seats that compose the country’s parliament, or National Assembly; this means that the party to win Punjab more or less wins Pakistan. Current attention is thus largely focused on two parties that seem competitive in Punjab: the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), an opposition party that only emerged as a third party in Pakistan’s historically two-party system in the 2013 election. Punjab is the PML-N’s stronghold, but after its leader and namesake, three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification from office on charges of corruption last year and his recent indictment, and the PTI’s cooptation of some “electables” (candidates who are thought to command local political power independent of their party), the conventional wisdom is that the PML-N stands weakened in Punjab, opening up space for the PTI.

National polls reflect a rise in PTI’s popularity and the most recent ones show it neck-to-neck against the PML-N. But pre-election constituency-level polling is not undertaken in Pakistan—given this, constituency-level results, and thus the overall outcome, cannot be predicted with any real confidence.

And while electables matter, there may be more than one electable in a single constituency. Empirical research from Punjab shows that in many constituencies, two dynastic politicians—who could be one type of electable—compete with each other in elections. That means that Khan’s choice of electables may not necessarily win in their constituencies.

The Pakistan People’s Party, which has alternated power with the PML-N through Pakistan’s democratic years from 1988 to 1997, and then again from 2008 to 2018, is thought to largely be relegated this time around to the province of Sindh, its stronghold. This is the first time the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s son, 29-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is contesting election—he is the most liberal of Pakistan’s current crop of politicians, but inexperienced, and the PPP remains mired in perceptions of mis-governance and lack of delivery from its 2008 to 2013 term in power and running the Sindh provincial government in the most recent political cycle. Still, Bhutto Zardari is running a vigorous campaign and drawing out large crowds in his rallies.

The PTI has scored some wins while governing the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province—notably a relatively non-corrupt record and introduction of a health insurance scheme —but the overall view on its governance is mixed. The party also consorts with the far-right, drumming up Pakistan’s regressive blasphemy laws and riling up crowds on the Ahmadi issue (Ahmadis are a persecuted religious minority in Pakistan who have been declared non-Muslims by the state).

On the other hand, the PML-N’s signature policy achievement this time around, as it was in its past two terms, is transport infrastructure—something Pakistani voters tend to reward. Its government has been unable to solve Pakistan’s energy crisis as it promised when it came to power in 2013, though there have been pockets of improvement on that front. The loss of Nawaz Sharif is significant for the party, though his brother Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister behind Punjab’s metrobuses and roads, holds weight in the PML-N and with the public as well. Nawaz Sharif’s voluntary return to Pakistan to be arrested on July 13 was good strategy for the party—and will likely win it some sympathy votes. Shahbaz will be more palatable to the military anyway—he has had a better relationship with the country’s establishment in recent years, and in contrast to Nawaz, has indicated a willingness to work with it in recent weeks.


Pakistan is currently abuzz with claims of election engineering by the military, akin to the 1990s. Khan is thought to be the military’s favored candidate. Nawaz Sharif frequently butted heads with the military as prime minister, and his disqualification and indictment by Pakistan’s courts on corruption charges most benefits Khan politically. In the run up to the election, various parties other than the PTI have faced campaign restrictions—for example, in terms of delayed or denied licenses to hold rallies. PML-N workers protesting Sharif’s arrest on July 13 were subject to a crackdown by Punjab’s caretaker government and have reported intimidation tactics by the state. Media outlets seen as pro-Sharif, notably the English daily Dawn, have also faced censorship and difficulties in distribution in some areas of the country.

But there has also been an outcry, especially online, on the restrictions parties and the media have faced in recent weeks, forcing the military to deny charges of meddling; it has said publicly that the only role it will play in the election is to provide security on polling day. Therefore, despite the pre-poll meddling, there is a chance that election day itself may go relatively smoothly.

Political whiplash

Party politics in Pakistan has long been characterized by horsetrading, or politicians switching parties, especially when they see the star of their party falling. (As I have documented, Pakistani politicians tend to face an incumbency disadvantage, which may be a factor that leads to horsetrading.) This election is no different. In addition, a large number of candidates have defected from the PML-N (Sharif claims that the security establishment has pressured them to do so), and have declared their candidacies as independents. Curiously, the Election Commission has allotted the same symbol, a jeep, to at least 119 independent candidates—the very symbol it assigned to a prominent PML-N defector (the former Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar). In Pakistan, party symbols matter, especially for illiterate voters, who may vote based on the symbol they see on the ballot alone. And independent candidates are significant because they may, post-election, declare their allegiance to a particular party—this time around, they may join the PTI if it does well enough to be in a position to form a coalition government.

Extremist contenders

Pakistan’s Islamists have typically performed poorly in elections, other than once in 2002, when they formed an alliance of six parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which won a majority in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and formed a coalition government in Baluchistan. The MMA alliance has been reprised this time around as well, but it is by no means the farthest on the right of the spectrum contesting election in 2018. Two fundamentalist groups have burst on the political scene in recent years—the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), whose platform is based on upholding and implementing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s political wing, the Milli Muslim League (MML). Though the MML was barred from contesting elections, its contenders have been subsumed under the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek party, and roughly 200 of them will contest election on July 25. And the TLP is the only party other than big three (the PML-N, the PTI, and the PPP) to field more than 100 candidates in Punjab’s constituencies. A recent report from a constituency in Karachi has documented the vigorous campaign the TLP is running there. These parties are very unlikely to do well, but having their rhetoric in the political mainstream is unprecedented, and is a real setback to any hope of countering extremism in Pakistan.

The choice voters face

Pakistani voters typically vote on some mix of candidate and party preference, which—in the absence of clear candidate and party ideologies, horsetrading and party defections, and lack of polling data—means that the outcomes in this election are nearly impossible to predict. But given incumbency disadvantage and the lack of a level playing field for the incumbent PML-N, Khan’s PTI has more of a shot than he ever has had before. If he ekes out a plurality of seats, he may just be able to cobble together a coalition government with the help of independents and other smaller parties. The 2018 election is thus the first one in decades where there is a chance that the victor may emerge from a party other than the PML-N and the PPP, signifying a change in course for Pakistan. Election day on July 25 is one to watch.