A supporter kisses the hand of cricketer-turned-politician and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan as he attends an election campaign rally in Islamabad on June 30, 2018.
CNN  — 

Pakistan is due to vote next week in general elections overshadowed by deadly terrorist attacks, hundreds of arrests and accusations of widespread interference by the military.

The run up to the July 25 elections have seen a massive crackdown on the media and allegations the military has secretly backed the campaign of former cricketer Imran Khan while targeting his political opponents. Controversy has also arisen over allowing militant groups to participate in the poll.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said there were “ample grounds to doubt” the legitimacy of the elections and criticized “blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections.”

In a statement issued this week, the group added it “reaffirms the public perception that all parties have not been given equal freedom to run their election campaigns.”

Khan has repeatedly denied claims he is linked to, or supported by the military, and condemned the harassment of election candidates.

Political tensions

Analysts fear that a doubtful election result may lead nuclear-armed Pakistan, a Muslim-majority South Asian nation of 208 million that has enjoyed several years of relative stability, into a renewed period of volatility.

Tensions have risen since the jailing of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges last week.

Sharif, who was sentenced in absentia on July 6, was jailed for 10 years on corruption-related charges which led to his removal from office last year.

The former premier, who was imprisoned on July 13 along with his daughter and presumed political heir, Maryam, claims the military is aiding a “judicial witch-hunt” to prevent the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) from winning a second term in power.

The five-year tenure of Sharif’s party has been hamstrung by hostility with the military, which was stung by criticism of its policy of backing militant proxies and Sharif’s efforts to reconcile with arch-rival India.

Pakistan has been ruled by the military directly or indirectly for most of the country’s 71-year history, maintaining tight control over defense and foreign policy and its own business empire.

Sharif’s party said hundreds of its activists have been detained in his family’s political stronghold of Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.

Following a pro-Sharif rally in the city last week, Pakistani authorities launched an anti-terrorism investigation against PML-N leaders and opened criminal cases against nearly 17,000 party members.

People look from a window next to an election banner featuring ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif during a campaign event by his brother Shahbaz Sharif, head of Pakistan Muslim League -Nawaz (PML-N), in Karachi on June 26, 2018.

Security risk

Political tensions have risen in tandem with fears over security. The same day Sharif was jailed, 150 people were killed in a suicide bombing, one of Pakistan’s deadliest terrorist incidents and the worst since 2014.

The explosion in the southwest province of Baluchistan targeted the convoy of a political candidate. A strike on another politician the same day in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province killed four people. Earlier in the week, at least 20 people died in a suicide attack in the northwest city of Peshawar.

The attacks, which were claimed by militant groups, have dented the credibility of the military’s claim to have defeated terrorist groups.

Following an earlier attack, the military said it will deploy 371,000 troops to ensure a “fair and free” election.

However, HRCP expressed “serious reservations about the extraordinary powers accorded to security forces – ostensibly to ensure the integrity of the polls”.

It added the military deployment “has blurred the line between civilian and non-civilian responsibility for the electoral process.”