Widespread allegations that the military are working behind the scenes to push Pakistan's election this week in favor of cricket politician Imran Khan threaten to weaken only the country's second democratic transition.
Voting on Wednesday is expected to be a two-way race between Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is now in jail and has been for decades has had strained relations with the army. "The military has little desire to see the return of the PMLN to power," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, "and is ready to develop behind-the-scenes actions that undermine the PMLN's electoral outlook big way. "
Members of the PMLN have complained about a harassment and detention campaign. Many high-ranking leaders say they have been threatened by the military intelligence agencies to force them to join Khan's party. Criminal proceedings were opened against almost 17,000 supporters of the party and corruption proceedings were initiated against several members of the party. Members of another major party, the Pakistan People's Party, also claim that military officers have pressured their candidates to change loyalty.
The leading English-language newspaper Dawn sympathetic to the PMLN says its distribution is blocked. Many journalists and online activists say they are under pressure to promote the PTI and to mitigate criticism of the army or reporting on the PMLN.
The army directly ruled Pakistan about half of its history. But journalists, politicians, analysts and human rights activists say that this is the brazen push into civilian life in recent years. "This will be the dirtiest, most dishonest and manipulated election that Pakistan's beleaguered public has ever experienced," said journalist and author Ahmed Rashid. "There is an increasing cacophony of voices from major political parties, human rights groups, academics, civil society groups and minorities that this will be a fraudulent choice."  Sharif was detained in a corruption case revelations from the 2016 Panama Papers revelations, which showed that he had bought expensive London real estate through offshore companies. Sharif and his family have called the trial a conspiracy, suggesting intervention by the military. The military denies this.
On July 13, Sharif and his daughter came to Pakistan from London to be arrested for corruption allegations. A huge drama surrounded their return as the Transitional Government quickly advanced against leaders and supporters of the PMLN across the country, trying to hold rallies and travel to Lahore airport to welcome Sharif. In the days before his return, the police arrested at least 600 party workers for security reasons.
"Hundreds were arbitrarily arrested just for supporting Nawaz Sharif," said Omar Wariach, Amnesty's Deputy South Asian Director. "What was once a living and living political space has now become strangely small."
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a PMLN leader who ousted Prime Minister Sharif last July, said steps to "engineer" the elections began while his party was in government. At a party meeting three months ago, he said nearly half of those in attendance had turned to parties from military personnel.
In a video message released last month, PMLN nominee Rana Iqbal Siraj said he was tortured and threatened by intelligence officials to give up his support for Sharif. He has since revoked the statement.
In May, even 21 PMLN legislators from Punjab province formally joined Khan PTI and gave the party a big boost before the elections. Earlier this month, more than 11 candidates decided to return PMLN tickets and run as independent candidates under the new "Jeep" symbol instead. The symbol has been widely regarded as an umbrella group for those expelled from the military by the PMLN.
Abbase's own nomination papers, like those of several other PMLN members, were rejected and he was chosen by an electoral tribunal of
"So many others had to leap through all kinds of hoops, whether against corruption investigations that were suddenly opened, or Election officers who did not accept our nomination papers, "said Abbasi. "It was a brutal and strange matter for our party." More recently, several religious parties joined the fight, including one led by a leader of a banned group that practices violence against Shiites, which has "monitored" the military abandoning its violent past and elections as potentially useful spoilers to undermine the PMLN
Many analysts fear that attempts to manipulate the election could lead to a hated parliament or weak coalition government. "That's exactly the sort of administration the military would want, because a fragile and split government would be easier to exploit than a unit with a strong mandate," Kugelman said.
Parties and human rights groups are also affected by the Electoral Commission's decision to deploy 371,000 troops, three times more than in 2013, in polling stations and give them wide ranging judicial powers, including conducting local court hearings and convicting individuals who break electoral laws.
Extended powers for an army that has outperformed Several governments in the past could have long-term implications for Pakistan's new democracy. "The damage has already been done," said Kugelman. "The past few months have compounded the deep imbalance in civil-military relations and the rapid challenges Pakistan faces in strengthening civil institutions and leaders, and it will be a big task, to say the least."
The media wing of the Army did not respond to calls of Observer but in a press conference earlier this month, military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor denied allegations of interference in the election. Fawad Chaudhry, a spokesman for the PTI, dismissed allegations of pre-rigging and denied that the party was supported by the military. "If Nawaz Sharif had support, no one would leave his party just because they were approached by a colonel or army major," he said. "The army can force a few people, but can they let 208 million people vote for Imran Khan? That's a joke."