20.02.2024 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Pakistan: vote passed, what next?

Pakistan: vote passed, what next?

Voting in Pakistan’s much-anticipated general election on 8 February began at 8 a.m., but in the meantime, mobile networks were shut down across the country for more than 26 hours. Pakistanis are not used to network blackouts. There is often no connectivity during bank holidays parades, Muslim Eid and Ashura, protests criticising the ruling establishment and political rallies. Last year alone, mobile networks were down for four days after protests erupted when former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested outside the Islamabad High Court despite being released on bail in May. Then, in December 2023 and twice in January 2024, all social media platforms were blocked for the duration of virtual rallies by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)  after their street protests were suppressed.

On the eve of the February 8 polls that elect the country’s parliament and provincial legislatures, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the election of Gohar Ali Khan as the new chairman of the Movement for Justice (PTI). The court also stripped the party of its symbol, a baseball bat, which is associated with the disgraced Imran Khan, the former captain of the national cricket team. Since then, the main opposition force, which has no official leader and no symbol (important for Pakistan), has been barred from contesting elections and its members have been urged by the party leadership to register as independent candidates. And even under such difficult circumstances, they achieved very impressive results.

In the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) elections, Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won in 75 constituencies and the Pakistan People’s Party (PNP) in 54, according to the Election Commission. Independent candidates, the bulk of whom are affiliated with the Movement for Justice, won seats in 101 constituencies. In this context, it is worth considering the additional seats, about 50, that the PML-N and PNP, which are allowed to contest the elections, will gain through the distribution of statutory quotas for women and religious minority candidates. In the event of an alliance, they could become the ruling coalition in Parliament and form a federal government. According to reports, the two sides may agree that Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif would become prime minister, while the PNP would become president.

For its part, Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party said it had “absolutely no interest” in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s offer to form a coalition government after the latter’s party failed to win enough seats to rule alone in the general elections. Speaking to a crowd of thousands of supporters from the balcony of his party’s office in the eastern city of Lahore, the centre of his political life, Nawaz Sharif, a three-time former prime minister, finally struck a conciliatory note. Acknowledging that his party did not win the required number of seats, he called on the rest of all parties, including independents, most of whom tend to support Imran Khan, to unite and govern on the basis of the coalition that has been formed.

The vote itself and Sharif’s personal statement were the culmination of a particularly contentious election season in which allegations of military interference took centre stage, casting a shadow over a historic event that marked only the third democratic transfer of power in the country’s history. The army, which has ruled Pakistan for more than three decades since independence in 1947, has categorically denied interfering in political affairs. But still, leaders of many parties are unhappy with the pressure the generals are putting on society and the voting process itself. On the eve of the vote, Sharif was considered the frontrunner in the election because of what was widely believed to be the army’s support for him. Army officers cleared the way for his return to Pakistan after four years of voluntary exile to lead the Pakistan Muslim League in the country’s national polls.

“We don’t have many seats to form the government alone, so we are asking other parties that have been successful in this election to join us and together we will form the government,” Sharif offered in his first post-election address. Showing unprecedented flexibility, he said the PML-N recognises the legitimacy of this election and respects the mandate of all elected parties. “Whoever gets the mandate, we respect them with all our heart, whether it is a party or an individual, an independent candidate, and we invite them to lead a wounded Pakistan out of difficulties… It is important that all other parties sit at the negotiating table and form a united government together,” he said. But PTI spokesman Rauf Hassan told Pakistani media that the party had “absolutely no interest” in Sharif’s coalition proposal, “We are not going to form any alliance or coalition with them. They are not trustworthy people.”

With no party having secured the required majority -133 seats (there are 265 seats in the National Assembly), the coming days are likely to see numerous political entreaties, negotiations and meetings. The PML-N and PNP parties – in their struggle for dominance in parliament, where a two-thirds majority is required to make the most important decisions – will struggle to forge alliances with other independents and smaller parties. In his speech, Sharif said he had instructed his brother Shehbaz Sharif, also a former prime minister, to meet leaders of other parties, including the PNP, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F, to discuss a coalition government. However, he did not mention PTI. While the temptation to leave the coalition with Imran Khan’s party and join another party forming the government will be great, PTI-backed independent candidates have repeatedly said they will not join other parties and will return to Khan’s party as soon as he asks them to do so.

“We don’t expect such a government to last very long,” Zulfi Bukhari, a close aide to Khan, told the media, referring to a possible future PML-N-led coalition government. “Whatever [government] they are going to form, there will be disputes and bickering between them… So, its credibility will be zero with zero public support, which means they will not be able to take any meaningful decisions for the betterment of the country.”

Meanwhile, the delay in releasing full official election results even 24 hours after polling stations closed has led to widespread fears of rigging and raised questions about the credibility of the polls. The government attributed the delay to the suspension of mobile phone services imposed as a security measure ahead of the elections, but opponents, especially from PTI, say it was done to manipulate vote counting. In the run-up to the elections, PTI complained of increasing repression against the party, including that it was not allowed to campaign freely. Imran Khan himself did not participate in the polls as he has been in jail since August last year and has also been barred from running for public office for ten years. The former prime minister, already jailed in one corruption case, was found guilty in three consecutive cases a week before the election and faces dozens of other trials, including one in which he is accused of ordering violent attacks on military installations on 9 May 2023, which could carry the death penalty. Imran Khan, of course, denies all this and claims that all the cases were politically motivated to remove him and his party from the elections.

Many analysts question the legitimacy of the current election, in which Khan, arguably the country’s current most popular politician, was not allowed to participate. And after the election, they fear that the lack of a clear winner could mean more uncertainty for a country where political temperatures have been very high since Khan was ousted in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in April 2022. The country has also struggled for months with a seemingly intractable economic crisis that millions of Pakistanis have experienced. Pakistan’s economy is currently suffering from record high inflation, dwindling foreign exchange reserves, currency depreciation, low consumer confidence and slow growth caused by tough reforms undertaken to fulfil the terms of the latest $3 billion financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved last year.

One of the key tasks for any new government will be to negotiate a new financial assistance programme with the IMF after the current deal expires. Another challenge will be dealing with the growing militancy of residents. The election season itself has been particularly bloody, with several attacks on rallies, polling stations and candidates over the past few weeks, while 16 people were killed in violence on polling day itself. So, the new government, which has yet to be formed, faces very difficult challenges in resolving many domestic problems, boosting the country’s economy and increasing the incomes of ordinary Pakistanis.


Victor MIKHIN, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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