Pakistan election: A prisoner, a kingmaker and an unexpected return

Pakistan goes to the polls on Thursday. But will the military be the real winner? And what does a cricket bat tell us about the state of politics in the country?

Here's what you need to know about the elections - and why they matter.

Who are the contenders?

Former cricketer Imran Khan, leader of the PTI party, is still the most popular politician in the country, according to polls.

But there's just one big issue - he's in jail and banned from even competing.

Days before the vote, the former prime minister was sentenced to 10 years for leaking state secrets, 14 for corruption and seven for an "illegal" marriage. He says the charges are politically motivated.

Thousands of members of Khan's party are behind bars too. Those left have been forced to stand as independents.

Khan’s team are making the most of their media savviness though - pumping out rallies on TikTok and YouTube. He has even used artificial intelligence to get his voice heard from behind bars.

But his party’s famous cricket bat symbol, which appears on the ballot paper, has been banned. That matters because in Pakistan, around 40% of people are illiterate, so they look for the logo to vote for the right party.

Meanwhile, the military is looming large over this election. The army wields considerable influence over Pakistan's political system and candidates vying for power often seek the support of its generals.

For many years Nawaz Sharif has been a thorn in the side of the army. But now the man who’s spent more time in power than anyone else since 1990, is believed to be their chosen candidate.

He’s spent time inside for his own corruption scandal- only recently returning from exile in London. But some in the international community consider him a safe, predictable pair of hands.

Sharif may likely end up in a coalition with dynastic kingmaker Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

He’s the 35-year-old son of former prime minister Benazir who was assassinated in 2007. The Oxford graduate has promised to double salaries and end the politics of hate.

Both Bhutto Zardari and Sharif are vowing to restore some stability to Pakistan. That won’t be easy to achieve in a country where so many feel disenfranchised and disillusioned by political dysfunction.

What are the main issues?

The country has been on a wild ride recently, from assassination attempts and protests to terror attacks and controversial cricket bats. And what happens in the country could affect the rest of the world.

Pakistan has nuclear arms and volatile borders - and that is not a great mix.

More than 1,500 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Pakistan last year, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. That's up by more than 50% compared with 2021.

The Pakistani government has blamed the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan for harbouring militants. Last year, Pakistan started kicking out 1.7 million Afghan refugees, along with other undocumented foreigners.

Then there’s India, another nuclear-armed nation and long-term rival of Pakistan.

There have been decades of cross border conflicts in Kashmir. Some think contender Sharif might help normalise relations.

Pakistan needs to keep things calm with Iran too after both launched missile strikes at each other last month.

Sharif and Bhutto Zardari are expected to embrace America more. Things took a very chilly turn when Khan accused Washington of a conspiracy to topple him, when he was prime minister.

But if the US wants a counterweight to China they’ll have to work hard. Beijing has become a major ally of Pakistan.

There's also a big economic crisis. For ordinary people, a spiralling economy and skyrocketing inflation is causing a lot of hurt. If it’s not fixed, the only way is down.

The risk is that, combined with a government lacking popular support and a public that believes the election was “rigged,” could lead to huge social unrest.