The power of the people has upended all expectations and predictions in this Pakistan election
More than 24 hours after the polling stopped and counting started, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has declared results of only about half of the 265 National Assembly constituencies where elections were held on February 8. But the results and trends have had a shock and awe effect, not just in Pakistan but also on Pakistan watchers around the world. It would be a gross understatement to say that these results have totally upended not only all the predictions (most of them based on conventional wisdom and past experience) but also upset the carefully laid out political plans of the Pakistan Army and its favoured political partners, cronies and proxies. After the 1970 election that led to the break-up of Pakistan, the 2024 election is another watershed moment that will decide the future of Pakistan. If the message sent out by the people of Pakistan is misread, mishandled, and brazenly ignored by the military establishment and the political players, it could lead to unmanageable upheaval in the country. But even if the result is to be accepted and accommodated, there is no clear roadmap on how this will be done.
After the 1970 election that led to the break-up of Pakistan, the 2024 election is another watershed moment that will decide the future of Pakistan.
The election that was supposed to have brought in some stability and certainty to Pakistan, so that the existential economic, political and security challenges could be tackled, has only added to an already unstable and uncertain situation. What is at stake is not just who will form the next government, but also whether this government will have any legs to stand on. Will the next government have the political capital and stomach to take the enormously difficult decisions that await it? Will the political opposition from Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) allow the government to function? Will the Pakistan Army close ranks behind the army chief Gen. Asim Munir and his cabal or will they want these generals to quit and allow a new leadership to take command? Can Asim Munir co-exist with Imran Khan after all the bad blood between them and Munir making it clear that the current military leadership doesn’t see any place for Imran in Pakistan's politics? Quite simply, the election results is nothing short of a dog’s breakfast.
From the leads and results that have come in, it is very clear that the biggest winner is the incarcerated Imran Khan. Candidates supported by him are likely to cross the three-figure mark of the directly elected seats in the National Assembly. The biggest loser is Gen. Asim Munir who had gone all in to finish off Imran Khan politically. All his plans to decimate Imran Khan have come a cropper in the face of stupendous public support that PTI-linked candidates have received. No one had given PTI more than 40-50 seats and some doubted if they will even reach that number. In fact, it would have been something of a miracle for the PTI to win two score seats—the party leader had been convicted; top leaders of the party were either in hiding or in jail; the military had engineered the defections of almost all the electable candidates and corralled them into the Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP) and PTI-Parliamentarians (both these ‘King’s parties have been wiped out); the candidates were mostly unknown, inexperienced faces; the party had been deprived off its election symbol, which meant that its candidates fought as independents and the chances that their voters would be able to identify candidates symbols were considered negligible; efforts to acquaint supporters with party-supported candidates were sabotaged by hacking the websites and social media handles of the party; party workers were hounded and often jailed; candidates houses and offices were raided; the candidates were often not allowed to canvass for votes; the administration was uniformly hostile; it was made clear to the electorate that voting for PTI candidates was to waste the vote; and as if all this was not enough, on polling day the internet was shut down, ostensibly as a security measure but in reality to obstruct any mobilisation and organisation of PTI voters. Despite all this, if the PTI has emerged as the single largest party, it means that Imran Khan would have won over 3/4 of the seats if PTI had been given a level playing field.
Party workers were hounded and often jailed; candidates houses and offices were raided; the candidates were often not allowed to canvass for votes.
The PTI has swept Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) both in the National Assembly and provincial assembly. In Punjab, it has put up an extremely impressive performance. In fact, it might have swept Punjab if the alleged post poll rigging—results being altered by returning officers at the behest of the military—had not taken place. There are credible allegations that the ECP had stopped announcing the results—an old tactic of the ‘establishment’ to flip an election—because the initial trends suggested an Imran tsunami that would have left nothing for the army or its camp followers. But it seems that the results have been altered just enough to be able to justify the results and prevent PTI from an overwhelming majority in the powerhouse province of Punjab.
On the political side, the biggest loser is of course Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), which is projected to win around 80 seats. On the eve of the election, PML-N had taken out full-page advertisements on the front pages of all major dailies declaring Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister. The international media was portraying him as Pakistan's comeback kid. The party was confident of winning over 100 out of 141 seats in Punjab. In fact, some party loyalists even projected winning 115-120 seats. PML-N also expected to win another 10-15 seats from the other three provinces, and with the reserved seats thrown in, was primed to form the next government. A columnist in Jang even went to the extent of claiming that the next government (PML-N) would be in office for at least 10 years to stabilise the economy and emulate the so-called Bangladesh model.
While PML-N efforts to form a government might still be executed, it will not make for a politically tenable or sustainable arrangement.
It has still not given up the hope of leading the next government by cobbling together a simple majority by winning over (poaching) some independents (most of them—over 90 percent—are PTI-supported candidates) and taking the support of other political parties. Poaching will not be easy because, it is one thing to poach on winning candidates of a losing party and quite another to do this from a party that has emerged a winner. What is more, PTI’s winning candidates will risk being lynched by their voter if they ditch the Khan. While PML-N efforts to form a government might still be executed, it will not make for a politically tenable or sustainable arrangement. It is also not clear if Nawaz Sharif would be agreeable to head such a coalition, which will be nothing short of committing political suicide. On the flip side, PML-N is yesterday’s party. It has no new ideas, no new blood, no new message, no new plans, no narrative, no ability to connect with the new voter. It is a bunch of jaded ‘uncles’ who are living in the last century. As such, this could well be its last time in government, so might as well make the most of it.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has performed much better than expected, especially in Sindh, which it has swept both in the National Assembly and provincial assembly. It will be forming the government in Sindh for the fourth consecutive time. But it will also become a player in Islamabad and Lahore, where no government can be formed without its support. In Balochistan too, the PPP will most likely be part of the coalition that will form the government and might even head it.
But it will be interesting to see if PPP gets the support of PTI to form the government in Islamabad. Political pandits in Pakistan believe that PPP would rather go with Nawaz Sharif because going with Imran Khan would be tantamount to poking the military establishment in the eye, something former president Asif Zardari would wants to avoid. Bilawal Bhutto, the inheritor of the party, could be inclined to sit in the Opposition, but his father Zardari is someone who likes to play power politics and extract whatever benefit he can get in these circumstances. There is some chatter that Zardari could make a pitch for becoming president (which gives him a full five years in office) and let PML-N take the Prime Ministership, which no one expects to last for more than a year or two, if at all. Alternatively, there is also some talk that PPP might make a pitch for the PM position either with support of PML-N or PTI.
Political pandits in Pakistan believe that PPP would rather go with Nawaz Sharif because going with Imran Khan would be tantamount to poking the military establishment in the eye, something former president Asif Zardari would wants to avoid.
The Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) has recovered some ground in Karachi, but this is more because of the space that opened up for it because of the targeting of PTI and less because of its own attractiveness. But while MQM will get some crumbs thrown its way in the centre, and perhaps even in Sindh, it is not a party with a great future. The other player who has lost big is Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI-F). The Maulana had a legitimate expectation of winning a handsome number of seats because PTI was on the backfoot in K-P and Balochistan. But while JUI-F has managed to grab a few seats in the Balochistan assembly and could be part of the provincial government, it has been a disappointing election for the Deobandi mullahs. The Jamaat Islami is no longer a serious political player in Pakistani politics. The pro-establishment Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) has suffered serious losses. The hardline Sunni Barelvi party, TLP, doesn’t seem to be wining many seats but it will be interesting to see if its vote share has increased as compared to 2018, when it emerged as the largest religious political party in Pakistan and the fifth largest party in the country.
Pakistan has had plenty of false dawns in its political history. Is the 2024 election in which the people’s power has upset the carefully laid out plans of men (politicians) and mice (the military) another false dawn? Or is it the start of a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s politics and consequently civil-military relations, which have been a burden that has bogged down the political development in the country. One inescapable observation is that parties that were seen to be cosying up to the military or seen as the Army’s sidekicks (the IPP, PTI-P, BAP, etc) have been contemptuously rejected by the electorate. Another observation is that the two provinces that underpin the military establishment and the deep state—Punjab and K-P—have rebelled against and rejected the military’s narrative. That the army has suffered a serious setback is a no-brainer. It has the reputation of a military that has never won a war and never lost an election. Now, it has even lost an election.
One inescapable observation is that parties that were seen to be cosying up to the military or seen as the Army’s sidekicks (the IPP, PTI-P, BAP, etc) have been contemptuously rejected by the electorate.
A third and very important aspect of the verdict in Pakistan is that times have changed, and the formulae and shenanigans of the past don’t work or wash down people’s throats anymore. Like establishments in rest of the world, the Pakistani military also needs to understand that information can no longer be controlled like it could be in the past. The states and establishments that are unable to adjust to this new reality and continue to use old formulae, will have them explode in their faces. Similarly, political parties must reinvent themselves to stay relevant. Operating on past precedents and practices is a recipe for political irrelevance in the future.
The bottom-line is that, to not recognise the magnitude and momentousness of the verdict of the people and to assess the situation based on what has happened in the past would be a folly of Himalayan proportions. Pakistan is on a knife’s edge and it remains to be seen if the “dangerous duffers”—the late Asma Jehangir’s evocative phrase for describing the generals—will take decisions that give it an off-ramp from the situation in which they and the country are caught in, or they once again cut up their country by staying on the knife’s sharp edge.
Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
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Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador ...Read More +