Pakistan’s economy cannot afford another election delay, warns Zardari

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A scion of one of Pakistan’s leading political families has warned that the country cannot afford further delay to an election set for next month as it struggles with a protracted economic crisis and increasingly volatile security situation.

“Pakistan is dealing with the perfect storm of crises,” Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and chair of the liberal-leaning Pakistan People’s party, told the Financial Times.

Elections were needed “yesterday”, Zardari added, to put in place a government to tackle “our economic situation, unemployment, poverty, inflation hitting historic levels [and] terrorism”.

Zardari’s warning comes as Pakistan grapples with an acute economic downturn as well as a rise in deadly terrorist attacks. This week, Pakistan exchanged unprecedented attacks with neighbouring Iran, which Islamabad and Tehran said targeted separatist terror groups.

Pakistan’s foreign reserves last year dwindled to less than a month’s worth of imports, leading to shortages of vital goods. Islamabad averted default with an emergency $3bn IMF funding programme, but economists have warned that the incoming government needs to secure a longer-term loan after the current scheme ends in April. 

“Once elections take place,” said Zardari, “then our international partners, particularly those who are keen to invest in Pakistan, will have confidence in our political stability.”

But the polls, now set for February 8, have already been postponed from November to allow districts to be redrawn, and analysts have raised concerns that they may not go ahead amid a deteriorating security situation. Pakistan’s Senate passed a non-binding resolution this month calling for a delay, citing a rise in terror attacks and harsh weather conditions.

The election’s legitimacy has also come under question due to the absence on the ballot of Imran Khan, the former prime minister who was removed in a no-confidence vote in 2022 and jailed on corruption charges.

Khan, who denies the allegations, is disqualified from holding office for five years, but he remains Pakistan’s most popular political figure, and some analysts believe his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party would triumph in a freely run poll. 

Khan’s approval rating stands at 57 per cent, according to a recent Gallup Pakistan poll, ahead of 52 per cent for Nawaz Sharif, the three-time former premier whose return to Pakistan in October from self-imposed exile in the UK has shaken up the race. Zardari stands at 35 per cent, though analysts have criticised the accuracy of public opinion polling data in Pakistan in the past.

Zardari, 35, inherited the PPP’s leadership from his mother, who was assassinated during the 2007 election campaign. He served as foreign minister for a year under the brief administration of Sharif’s brother Shehbaz Sharif, which followed Khan’s ousting.

Khan, meanwhile, remains in prison, and the PTI has suffered a military-backed crackdown, with thousands of its members and supporters detained over the past year after his arrest sparked violent unrest.

Khan “knows he is not winning the elections”, Zardari said, adding that the PTI planned “to create as much political chaos and difficulty for the incoming government”. Khan’s arrest last year sparked violent unrest.

The Supreme Court last week further weakened the party’s campaign, upholding an electoral commission’s decision to block the PTI from using a cricket bat as its party symbol — a serious setback in the country of 241mn where many illiterate voters have traditionally identified candidates by their party symbols. As a result, PTI candidates have been forced to run as independents under a range of symbols.

A PTI spokesperson said the party was “looking for a fair fight so that we can peacefully contest elections, but all legal avenues have been closed on our party to contest elections”.

Political analysts said Khan in particular retained the support of Pakistanis who were badly stung by the economic crisis. Inflation has run as high as 40 per cent, following sharp increases in electricity and gas tariffs, one of the conditions of the IMF package.

Zardari warned that Islamabad would have to adopt further austerity measures in consultation with the IMF and other lenders to escape “the economic quagmire”.

“There are some difficult decisions that the incoming government has to take,” he said.

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