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What To Expect From Pakistan's General Elections


Tomorrow is a big day for Pakistan. It's Election Day, the second time in the country's seven-decade history that one civilian government will pass on power to another. It's also a tense time in the country. At a campaign rally earlier this month, more than 150 people were killed by a suicide bomber. NPR's Diaa Hadid joins us now from Islamabad to talk about tomorrow's vote. Hi, Diaa.


SHAPIRO: What kinds of preparations are you seeing in the street for tomorrow?

HADID: So the preparations, you can see them as soon as you step out the front door. Just this morning, I was crossing the street and the police had blocked off the road. They'd emptied out a boys' school because they'll be using it to count votes. And I'm guessing that there's a similar sort of mobilization across Pakistan because you have about 80,000 polling booths to serve about 105 million voters. And they're going to be protected by around a quarter of a million security forces. It's an enormous project. And those security forces are mostly going to be there to try protect these elections. There's been a lot of violence in the run-up to polling day. You mentioned one attack where more than 150 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a campaign rally. And there's actually been several of these incidents in the past few weeks.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about who the main candidates are. Who are voters choosing between?

HADID: Right. So the two main parties, one that's led by a former sports star. His name is Imran Khan. And the other party is led by a fellow called Nawaz Sharif. Now, he's the former prime minister, and he leads the old ruling party. He's actually currently in jail right now on a corruption case, and his followers allege that he and his party have been facing a crackdown. They say that party workers have been harassed, that some of the candidates have been pressured to jump ship. Media that's sympathetic to Nawaz Sharif has been silenced. You get a sense of this tension underlying these elections. It's meant to be a victory for democracy, but you have plenty of voices in Pakistan saying actually it looks like Pakistan's military is up to its old tricks.

Now, that's important because this country is really trying to establish its democratic credentials. It was ruled for about half of its seven decades by military dictators. And this is, like you mentioned, only the second time in its history that one civilian government has handed over power peacefully to another.

SHAPIRO: So when you have violence before the election, you have one main candidate in prison, as you talk to voters, are they confident that this will actually be a free and fair democratic process?

HADID: So the really interesting thing is - is that when we were interviewing people out today, we went to the outskirts of Islamabad. It's one of the really hotly contested seats. That wasn't on people's minds. And what they wanted was change. They were sick of the old ruling party. They said they were kind of corrupt. You know, they're kind of enamored by this sporting legend who wants to now rule them. And so a lot of people just had stars in their eyes when they were talking about Imran Khan.

And the other part of it is that Imran Khan, this contender, has been running on this anti-corruption platform, and that's really resonated with a lot of people. They're really just looking at who's going to bring them change, who's going to end corruption, who's going to bring them services. And in that way, you get a sense that Pakistan is actually becoming more democratic. People are voting on mom-and-dad issues, like services.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like this is a real test of Pakistan's democracy. When the voting is over, do you expect that the country will be able to come together, or are these divides going to persist?

HADID: It really depends on how deeply people feel that they've been robbed of this election. And that's important because the heartland of this resentment is in the Punjab. It's Pakistan's most populous province, and it's where the military recruits from. If people there genuinely feel like they've been robbed, that actually could lead to instability in months and years to come.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Diaa Hadid in Islamabad covering the election there for us. Thanks, Diaa.

HADID: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.