In elections being closely watched by China, Pakistanis are heading to the polls in a tight race defined by a teetering economy and growing security risks that could shape the future for billions of dollars of Chinese infrastructure projects for their country.
“Beijing has a lot at stake here,” Michael Kugelman, the director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute, told RFE/RL. “China wants more stability in this relationship and in Pakistan as a whole, but there’s no guarantee that this election can deliver that.”
The February 8 vote in Pakistan takes place amid rising inflation and a weak currency, along with an escalating terrorism problem and simmering tensions with three of the South Asian country’s four neighbors. The crucial parliamentary elections also come amid intense political polarization after former Prime Minister Imran Khan was imprisoned on the eve of the vote.
With Pakistan becoming increasingly unstable, Beijing — who has become one of Islamabad’s most important allies — is worried about the future of its investments in the country of some 231 million people and ensuring the safety of Chinese workers who have increasingly come under deadly attacks.
While China is a vital economic lifeline for Pakistan, the South Asian country also serves as a strategic pillar for Beijing’s own ambitions by providing vital trade links to the Middle East through the Arabian Sea.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a collection of road, rail, energy, and other infrastructure projects worth more than $50 billion, has been a flagship within Beijing’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but political upheaval and security setbacks in Pakistan have seen the venture slow down and even stall in recent years.
Looking to breathe new life into CPEC, experts say Beijing would prefer a government led by Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who is currently the frontrunner from the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN).
“CPEC has lost momentum due to a reluctance from Beijing to invest over security concerns, plus Pakistan’s overall poor economic situation and China’s own slowdown,” said Kugelman. “China wants to get CPEC going again and Sharif is seen as someone who will work with them to that goal.”
A Tense Election
While China has a vested interest in the upcoming vote, Beijing also has a strong relationship with Pakistan’s influential military that Kugelman says gives it a sense of continuity amid the upheaval of the country’s electoral politics.
According to the global democracy watchdog Freedom House, Pakistan’s electoral process is considered “partly free.” While it holds regular elections, the country operates under a “hybrid rule” between the military and civilian government, and no elected prime minister has completed a full five-year term in the country’s history.
Looking at the February 8 contest, three major candidates announced plans to run in the parliamentary elections in the hopes of leading the next government as prime minister — but only two are eligible.
Sharif, whose brother Shehbaz led the most recent coalition before acaretaker government took over in August, is seen as most likely to head the next government. A three-time former prime minister who recently returned from exile in the United Kingdom — where he fled in 2019 after losing support from Pakistan’s omnipotent military and being charged with corruption. Experts say he’s since mended ties with the military and now has its backing.
Another top candidate is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 35-year-old son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who represents the center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). A former foreign minister, polls show Bhutto Zardari as unlikely to lead Pakistan’s next government, but he could act as kingmaker in parliament helping decide who becomes prime minister.
Although shown in polls as Pakistan’s most-popular politician, Khan is not on the ballot.
His term ended with a vote of no confidence after he lost the support of the military in 2022. He was arrested and sentenced to prison on corruption charges, a move that his supporters say is politically motivated. Islamabad’s electoral commission has banned Khan and many other candidates from his Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party from politics.
But while the PTI has been kept off the ballot, his supporters can still vote for Khan loyalists who are running as independents.
This has prompted accusations that the military is interfering and raised concern that the results of the vote will not be respected. A recent survey conducted by Gallup found that some 70 percent of Pakistanis lack confidence in the integrity of their elections, which the agency said “ties previous highs” but “represents a significant regression in recent years.”
A Preferred Candidate?
Against this backdrop, China is seen as favoring Sharif as its preferred candidate to lead the next government.
The launch of CPEC overlapped with Sharif’s third term in office and his government forged closer ties with China as Beijing launched a wide slate of ambitious infrastructure projects across the country.
While CPEC grew into a centerpiece of the BRI — viewed by many analysts as a strategic project aimed at building China’s global influence — the investments quickly became intertwined with Pakistani politics.
Filippo Boni, a senior lecturer at the Open University in Britain who studies CPEC, says that Sharif directed the massive venture toward the Sindh and Punjab provinces in order to boost his party’s prospects during elections by providing investment to the politically important regions.
Similarly, he says Sharif pushed for CPEC’s early investments to go toward energy projects in the hope that ending the country’s electricity shortages could improve his reelection bid in 2018.
“Sharif and his brother were key figures for helping turn CPEC into a flagship for China,” Boni told RFE/RL. “The prospects of new projects being added to CPEC looks slim today, but with more trusted civilian leadership in place, maybe some of that could be reconsidered.”
When Khan succeeded Sharif in 2018, he expressed initial suspicion of BRI and CPEC, and raised concerns about the long-term implications of becoming too dependent on China. Khan’s government was critical of the preferential tax breaks given to Chinese companies and members of his cabinet even called for a pause on Chinese investment into the country.
Khan would later temper his criticism of CPEC and use the venture to shore up his own political base, choosing to establish a special economic zone in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province despite Beijing preferring different locations and feasibility studies showing other areas would perform better.
Despite the potential of CPEC, many projects have fallen behind schedule or so far failed to deliver on the promised results. This has led to the Pakistani military taking greater control through the 2019 creation of the CPEC Authority — a government body authorized to oversee BRI projects in Pakistan — and Islamabad is looking to cede further authority to the military to implement CPEC.
Khan’s tenure also saw a rise in attacks on Chinese personnel and interests, which Beijing became increasingly worried about and expressed concern to Islamabad that not enough was being done to protect its citizens in Pakistan.
“Khan’s early moves unsettled China and, even though they were walked back, this wasn’t forgotten in Beijing,” said Kugelman. “Khan is a populist who the Chinese see as unpredictable. Sharif, on the other hand, rarely asked questions or placed demands on Beijing.”
Looking For A Future
The elections offer little hope for near-term political stability, experts say, and Pakistan will continue to grapple with the political, economic, and security threats it’s currently facing.
Boni says security threats in Pakistan, particularly over its own citizens, are one of Beijing’s top concerns moving forward and, along with the country’s unstable economic situation, could keep CPEC on the backburner.
When caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar met with President Xi Jinping in China in October, he pushed for new investments. Xi responded by urging Pakistan to first take more steps to protect Chinese organizations and personnel working in the country.
“No matter who wins the elections, it’s going to be an uphill battle to manage the economy and deal with security threats,” Boni said.
He adds that Beijing continues to deepen ties with Pakistan’s military through new arms deals and military exercises, including large-scale naval exercises in November. China has also looked to prop up Pakistan with billions of dollars in economic aid in the last year.
“New civilian leadership could help stop [CPEC’s] slowdown, but there’s so much uncertainty for China,” Boni said. “The relationship with the military provides continuity, but it will take more to recalibrate the CPEC.”