ISLAMABAD: Intensifying allegations of military interference threaten to cast a shadow over Pakistan`s general election on July 25, a historic event that will mark only the country`s second ever democratic transition of power.
On Friday the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party handed over to a technocratic caretaker administration after completing a full five-year term, another democratic milestone.
But as campaigning begins, tensions between the civilian politicians and the powerful military, which has ruled for about half of Pakistan`s history since independence in 1947, are running high.
Four PML-N lawmakers told Reuters they had received threats and pressure to switch allegiance to rival parties, while newspapers are awash with accusations of military "engineering" and journalists and media houses complain of growing censorship.
"It is a chipping away. It`s behind the scenes, under the covers, below the radar," PML-N`s outgoing Privatisation Minister Daniyal Aziz told Reuters, using typically coded language to hint at meddling by the generals without naming them.
The military, which strongly denies interfering in politics, did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The political tensions come at a time of growing economic instability in the nuclear-armed nation of 208 million people. Islamabad`s rapidly depleting currency reserves and a widening current account deficit have prompted many analysts to predict the next government will need to seek the country`s second International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout since 2013.
PML-N founder Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court as prime minister in July and now faces corruption charges, events he has described as "pre-poll rigging" aimed at denying his party another term. He has cast the campaign as a battle to protect the "sanctity of the vote".
PML-N`s main challenge is expected to come from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who is betting his anti-corruption message will propel him to power.
Khan has denied the generals have thrown their weight behind PTI, and accuses Sharif of hiding behind such allegations to avoid accountability.
In a statement, the PTI this week said: "Any deliberate or unconscious effort to compromise the sanctity of ballot could cause irreparable damage to national interests".
But analysts and Western diplomats who spoke to Reuters said the military was squeezing PML-N ahead of polls.
"This kind of interference has always been there, but this time it is so naked that everyone is seeing it and everyone is talking about it," said Ijaz Khan, a retired international relations professor at Peshawar University.
A "Pre-Election Assessment Report" published this week by an independent think-tank, Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), deemed the pre-poll process to have been "unfair overall" in the 12 months before the election was called last week.
PILDAT said "surreptitious muzzling" of the media, a rise in bias from the military establishment and a "perceived partisanship in judicial and political accountability have nearly eroded the prospects of a free and fair election in 2018".
Pakistan`s biggest TV channel, Geo, went off the air for several weeks in April and only returned after its executives struck a deal with the military over their coverage of Sharif, two executives told Reuters.
Distribution of Dawn, the biggest English-language newspaper in the country, has been suspended from some military cantonment areas in several cities, a senior Dawn executive told Reuters.
Many prominent columnists have put out statements about their work being censored, often by their own editors.
MENACING PHONE CALLS
A frequent complaint by Sharif, whose second term as prime minister was ended by a bloodless army coup in 1999, is that PML-N lawmakers are being intimidated.
Four PML-N lawmakers from the Punjab province described to Reuters a similar pattern of strange calls and visits from unknown men who would pretend to be well-wishers, but then make clear to them it would be in their interest to ditch Sharif.
None of the lawmakers wished to be identified. One recounted a recent, seemingly random, encounter with a man claiming to be a supporter that ended with the well-wisher telling him: "Your boss is a traitor. Traitors have no future in this country".
Three of the lawmakers are sticking with PML-N but one has defected to PTI. All four said they believed the calls were from intelligence agents, though they did not have any proof. Reuters could not independently corroborate the events they described.
In the last few months at least 15 National Assembly PML-N lawmakers have left the party, mostly to join PTI. PML-N officials say most were politicians who won their seats as independents in 2013 and joined PML-N afterwards.
Khan has dismissed PML-N accusations the lawmakers were pressured into switching sides, but predicted in a recent meeting with foreign media that many more would follow. He believes such defections will be vital to gaining a foothold in Punjab, long a PML-N stronghold that returns 141 of the 272 directly contested seats in the National Assembly.
IN THE DOCK
Several senior PML-N figures are currently facing court cases after a flurry of charges against them.
Among them, Sharif could be jailed for 14 years before the polls in a corruption trial he calls a "witch hunt", while Aziz, the former privatisation minister, is facing contempt of court charges that could bar him from standing in the election.
The judiciary has denied targeting, or favouring, any political party, and rejects allegations from PML-N of collusion with the military to weaken the party.
The Election Commision of Pakistan`s code of conduct for the pre-poll campaign period is shaping up to be the next battleground.
Proposed new rules would prohibit anyone from criticising the military and the judiciary, while also banning politicians from talking about what they have achieved in government.
With PML-N`s electoral campaign built around touting mega infrastructure projects and defending civilian rule, the party is no doubt who this would hurt the most.