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Pakistan's prime minister is expected to announce the dissolution of parliament


Nothing is normal about politics in Pakistan right now.


On the line with us is NPR's Diaa Hadid. She covers Pakistan. Hi, Diaa.


MCCAMMON: So in theory, elections are usually good news, right?

HADID: Right. On the face of it, a country that's been ruled by army generals for nearly half of its existence has now seen multiple governments transfer power to each other through the ballot box. But Pakistan is a fragile democracy, and critics say the military still holds sway behind the scenes. And they point to the fate of the man who was arguably Pakistan's most popular leader, the former prime minister, Imran Khan. On Sunday, he was imprisoned on corruption charges. And yesterday, he was disqualified from running for office. And that's a culmination of tensions that have long brewed between Khan and the army, the same army that's accused of helping him get elected in the first place but soured on him when he started challenging their authority.

MCCAMMON: So given all of that, how much concern is there, Diaa, that these upcoming elections will not be free and fair?

HADID: Well, certainly, that's something that analysts and opposition figures are telling us, like a spokesman for Imran Khan, who called his imprisonment and disqualification pre-poll rigging. Still, that spokesman, Zulfi Bukhari, says the party will contest elections. He says they've got a strong chance.

ZULFI BUKHARI: You can leave Imran in prison, you can disqualify him. As long as he can get it out to the people that my party is standing in elections, these are the people you have to give the vote to. And him sitting in jail is probably our best election campaign.

HADID: Our best election campaign. On the other hand, there's been meek protests against Khan's detention, and there's been droves of defections since a crackdown sharpened against Khan's party in recent months. So we're not quite sure how much support they'll command. It's worth adding, though, that the government says Khan's imprisonment is simply because he broke the law, and elections may well be delayed until March or April. And two ministers say that's to adjust electorates based on new census figures.

MCCAMMON: You know, Diaa, it seems that Pakistan is so often in the throes of a political crisis. Is this one different from the others that the country has experienced?

HADID: It does feel familiar to many. Pakistani media reported this week that eight former prime ministers and two presidents shared a similar fate after they fell out with the army. Still, Sameen Mohsin, a political analyst, says this time feels different. She says the army is asserting control in increasingly blatant ways. It's cracked down more harshly on perceived opponents. It's broadened its vast business interests. Legislation favorable to the army, she says, was rushed through Parliament.

SAMEEN MOHSIN: Those kinds of things which have been legislated for are extremely, extremely, extremely dangerous and will have far-reaching consequences. And the military is entrenched to a level that I think we haven't seen in a long time outside of martial law.

HADID: And right now, Pakistan - which, let's remember, is a nuclear-armed country - is grappling with multiple crises - hunger, devastating floods last year, militants wreaking havoc. And analysts say it's unlikely these tough issues can be tackled if elections bring in a government that's seen as having come to power unfairly.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Diaa Hadid. Thank you for your reporting.

HADID: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO LANES' "TRANSCEND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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.