Imran Khan at World Economic Forum in Davos, January 26 2012 (Picture: Remy Steinegger)

This week’s Pakistan general election could scarcely have come at a worse time for its ruling class.

The country of 241 million people stands on the brink of economic collapse, with government debt, unemployment and inflation at record highs.

Millions of people are already too poor to buy food or fuel. And even mainstream commentators sense their hunger could turn to fury any time.

Pakistan’s security situation is also deteriorating fast. Last month, Iran rained down missiles on separatist fighters based in Pakistan’s south west Balochistan province.

Pakistan returned fire on militants based in Iran. Both countries are nuclear powers, and no one is sure if these are the opening shots of a new regional conflict.

Threats to the state also come from within. The first half of 2023 saw a 79 percent increase in the number of home-grown terrorist attacks in Pakistan compared to 2022.

Army attempts to clampdown on them seem only to have exacerbated the problem.

As part of its internal war on terror, the state last year began expelling tens of thousands of unregistered Afghan refugees in the north east of the country.

That has only increased the levels of bitterness in society. Amid the growing chaos the country’s elite craves a government of stability.

But the political parties expected to chart a course through the choppy waters are all thoroughly discredited. Their widely despised leaders are mired in corruption and dirty dealing.

The likely election winner, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), has decided to regurgitate an old friend.

It hopes he is more popular than any in the current leadership. Former party leader, and three-times prime minister Nawaz Sharif has recently been brought back from exile in London.

He ended his last term as prime minister in 2017 in jail for corruption and forever banned from holding political office. This came after he fell out with the country’s most powerful generals.

Just in time for the election, Sharif has been cleared of all charges and the lifetime ban deemed unconstitutional.

Another would-be prime minister is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. He inherited the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from his late mother, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Bhutto Zardari has his party posing as a left alternative and pledges to double wages and increase taxes on the rich.

But his real aim is to form a governing alliance with other parties and get himself into high office. The left policies are merely bargaining chips.

The army and the judiciary, meanwhile, ensure the most popular Pakistani politician, Imran Khan, is behind bars.

The state has the former prime minister—and cricket legend—tied up in legal knots.

Back in 2018, Khan successfully presented himself as a “change candidate” who wanted to help the lower middle classes and the poor.

He also spoke out against the West’s “War on Terror”, demanding peace talks between the state and the Pakistani Taliban.

It was a popular message and helped sweep him into office. But it was one that angered the Americans that soon started manoeuvring to have him ousted.

But in office, Khan’s PTI party’s social programme barely got off the ground. Soon the party was acting like every other that has bent before neoliberalism.

Polls now show the PTI’s support splintering towards a range of different parties, big and small.

But no political party in Pakistan has genuine mass support, and no way of dealing with the growing crises.

The hope must be that the initiative soon passes from the ballot box to the streets.

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