As Pakistan’s election dust settled on Friday, February 9, 2024, with results on a majority of seats trickled in, a clear victor remained elusive, and independent candidates linked to jailed former PM Imran Khan winning the race.
According to Dawn, of the 256 seats counted from the 264 seats that went to the polls, independent candidates backed by Khan had won 93 till 11 am Bangladesh time today.
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Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won 73, while the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari got 54. The rest 36 seats were won by small parties and other independents.
A simple majority of 134 is needed for a party to form a government. Despite party affiliation, MPs have the flexibility to collaborate. For Imran’s party, its candidates can opt to remain independent, potentially forming a government if they collectively surpass the required number of seats. Despite no clear winner and results of some seats remaining, both Imran Khan and his main rival, three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, declared victory. In his ‘victory speech,’ Nawaz said that his party has emerged as the largest and begun talks with others to join a coalition.
Amidst the chaos, Pakistan’s powerful army chief urged the country to move on from the politics of ‘anarchy and polarization’. General Asim Munir said that a stable hand was needed to unite ‘Pakistan’s diverse polity’, and to make ‘democracy functional and purposeful’. The army is dubbed as the last say in Pakistan’s politics and allegedly backing Mr. Nawaz.
Analysts said that this uncertainty adds more waves to the woes of a country struggling to recover from an economic crisis while it grapples with rising militancy in a deeply polarized political environment.
Big Boundary Without Bat
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) defied a months-long crackdown, and arrests that crippled campaigning and forced its candidates to contest as the independents.
Defying the odds, Khan’s loyalists are winning the race, proving that its popularity is not a social media bubble, but has a real and committed support base.
The party unofficially came into this election with its founder disqualified and in prison (he is already serving a three-year sentence for corruption but secured bail on Saturday in 12 cases linked to the May 9 riots), and its cricket bat symbol removed from the ballot.
Khan, who was ousted as prime minister by his opponents in 2022, has claimed that all the cases against him are politically motivated. The party says that its supporters have been intimidated and picked up by the police while it tries to run its campaign – allegations the authorities have always denied.
But the real challenges for the PTI wait ahead as the election results may change in the coming days as candidates from different parties challenge the results. But that is not the only thing to watch out for.
Pakistan requires all independents to join a political party within 3 days from the moment they are officially declared or they must stay independent. PTI will need to come up with a solution soon.
The imprisoned leader’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party posted on his X social media account an artificial intelligence-generated message. In the audio-visual message, which is usually delivered by word through his lawyers, Khan rejected Sharif’s claim to victory and congratulated his supporters “on winning the 2024 elections”. He called them on to celebrate and protect their vote.
“I trusted that you all would come out to vote – and you honoured that trust and your massive turnout has shocked everyone,”The message said, adding no one would accept Sharif’s claim because he had won fewer seats and because there had been rigging in the polls.
Reference To 1970 Elections
As Pakistan is yet to get a clear winner, users of social media X began drawing parallels to the polls with the general elections in 1970 in which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman secured a landslide victory against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Looking back into the 1970 general election, it was a fierce contest between two major democratic parties: the West Pakistan-based Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the then East Pakistan-based Awami League under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The then West Pakistan, now Pakistan, had 138 seats while East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, had 162 seats in the National Assembly, excluding the reserved seats for women.
The Awami League secured an absolute majority, winning 160 of the 162 seats, sweeping East Pakistan, while the Pakistan Peoples Party won 81 seats in Punjab and Sindh, out of the 138 seats. However, the landmark electoral mandate of 1970 did not translate into a smooth transition of power.
The ruling regime in West Pakistan, backed by the military and led by Yahya Khan, refused to recognize the right of the Awami League to form a government, which ultimately led to the Independence of Bangladesh.
Drawing parallels with both elections, one user posted in X, “In 2024, echoes of 1970 emerge as elections unfold in Pakistan. Regional concerns resurface, hinting at potential parallels with the past—division, creation, and the formulation of a new constitution. The unfolding events bear a resemblance to the pivotal moments of 1970.”
Another user wrote, “A repeat of 1970 General Elections. This time they couldn’t destroy the country so they destroyed the constitution.” Meanwhile, another user demanded that the Pakistani military submit to Imran Khan.
“A repeat of the 1970 general election! Now, the Pakistani military must submit to Prime Minister Imran Khan, which they did not do to Sheikh Mujib, resulting in the loss of East Pakistan. Remember, no power on Earth can stop an idea whose time has come.”
Dealing Begins to Form Battling Joint-Family
As no single party wins the majority, the question of a coalition government looms. To form the government, a party needs the support of at least 26 MPAs, and three parties, including the PPP, PMLN, JUIF, and ANP, could comfortably form the coalition government.
The PML-N and the PPP have reportedly agreed to form a unity government in the Centre and Punjab after PML-N leader Shehbaz Sharif met PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto and former president Asif Ali Zardari.
Pakistan’s leading news outlet DAWN said, quoting PML-N party sources that Zardari and Shehbaz agreed to form a government in Punjab and at the center and both the parties will present their own views in the next meeting and finalize all matters regarding the power-sharing formula as to who will assume which office and where with mutual consultation.
But at the moment, it is difficult to say what will happen. If courts rule in favor of the PTI-affiliated candidates who are challenging the alleged vote manipulation, then Nawaz Sharif’s chances of coming into power are slim.
The alleged manipulation of poll results also pushed the European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom to raise concerns about the fairness of polls. While reacting to allegations of rigging in the general elections, the EU called for a full investigation while the US called into question the “undue restrictions” put in place during polls. The US, however, pledged to work with whoever formed the next government.
British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the UK urged authorities in Pakistan “to uphold fundamental human rights including free access to information, and the rule of law”.
In a statement, he went on to express “regret that not all parties were formally permitted to contest the elections”. Meanwhile, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller criticized what he described as “undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly” during Pakistan’s electoral process.
He also cited “attacks on media workers” and “restrictions on access to the internet and telecommunication services” as reasons to worry about “allegations of interference” in the process. Many analysts have said this is among Pakistan’s least credible elections.
As many as 128 million people were registered to cast their votes, almost half of whom were under the age of 35. More than 5,000 candidates – of whom just 313 are women – contested 266 directly-elected seats in the 336-member National Assembly.
More instability ahead?
Many Pakistanis hoped that the February 8 elections would end the country’s protracted political and economic turmoil. However, as no party has gained a simple majority in parliament, the bitter conflict between Khan and Sharif is unlikely to cease in the short term. Pakistan is reeling from a grave financial crisis, high inflation, unemployment, and environmental catastrophes, with many Pakistanis struggling to make ends meet and disillusioned by political leaders.
“Anybody who comes to power needs to bring political stability to the country, and it is not possible without developing trust among the public. So, elections are important, but I don’t think it will make much difference,” – said, Saira Khan, a schoolteacher in Islamabad, reports DW.
Whoever forms the next government will face huge challenges. The most pressing of these is fixing the economy. The failure to bring down inflation and increase employment opportunities will likely make it unpopular.
Pakistan heavily depends on the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) bailout packages. The next IMF-Pakistan negotiations are scheduled to take place after the new government takes charge. The financial body’s tough terms will force the next premier to increase taxes and undertake reforms that will likely further burden the public.
Another substantial challenge for the next government will be dealing with a spike in violent attacks along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and Iran. The country’s Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces have seen a rise in militant attacks in the past few months. To tackle this threat, the next government may need to empower the security forces and launch a military operation in these areas. The current political scenario is far from conducive for the next premier to carry out these measures.
Military Script Went Wrong?
It was said to be the “mother of all selections”. The ‘establishment’, read the Pakistan army, had planned it all to select the new prime minister. Former Pakistan PM Imran Khan has been kept in jail for many months now. He has been sentenced thrice, with almost over 20 years in jail, in just one week before the elections. Another former PM, Nawaz Sharif, ended his self-imposed exile and came back to Pakistan well in time for national elections. The ‘establishment’ ensured that neither Imran Khan nor his party, Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), could easily campaign or contest in the elections. Khan has been barred from running in the elections, effectively sidelined from the political ‘field.’
The Election Commission of Pakistan also stripped PTI of its traditional ‘bat’ symbol, forcing its candidates to run as independents. Despite these challenges, Khan attempted to campaign from jail using AI and social media, though his efforts were often thwarted by internet outages during his speeches.
In essence, the establishment stacked the deck against Imran Khan and PTI, controlling the ‘pitch,’ ‘umpire,’ and ‘playing conditions.’ However, the outcome of elections is unpredictable, and early trends suggest that the Pakistani electorate might defy the army’s script.
Despite these maneuvers, the ‘establishment’ is likely to influence the selection of the next Pakistani PM. The loyalty of independents, who may align with the ‘preferred’ candidate under various pressures, remains uncertain.