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Inside Pakistan’s Deeply Flawed Election

The country’s polls were marred by delayed results and charges of rigging. Worse, they might plunge Pakistan into an even deeper political crisis.

By Ayesha Jalal

February 2024

Pakistanis went to the polls on 8 February 2024 to elect all 265 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of Pakistan’s Parliament, as well as the legislatures of four provinces. According to the official results, which were not fully released for more than 48 hours after polls closed, independent candidates mostly affiliated with jailed former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won 92 seats; the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) of another former premier, Nawaz Sharif, came in second with 75 seats; and the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPP-P), led by Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, won 54 seats, mostly from Sindh Province; smaller parties took the remainder.

In the weeks leading up to election day, there was endless speculation that polling would be delayed after already having been pushed back several times. Violence was also a looming threat, with the Islamic State carrying out attacks on two election offices in Balochistan, leaving 28 people dead and injuring dozens on the eve of the vote, as well as official reports of bomb blasts in border regions of the country. Fearing more violence on election day, the caretaker government suspended phone and mobile-internet services, despite having earlier assured voters there would be no such disruption.

Meanwhile, the delayed results seemed to lend credence to widespread concerns that the contest was fixed. Before even 10 percent of the vote had been counted, PTI chairman-elect Gohar Ali Khan claimed that his party had won 150 seats. He later updated that count to 170. Alleging that the election had been rigged and the results altered, Gohar Ali Khan promised that the PTI would contest the results in court and organize peaceful protests. Other parties, too, are protesting electoral irregularities, notably return officers’ alleged alteration of the vote count, and the delayed release of results in different parts of the country.

The belated response of the Election Commission to citizens’ worries about the inexplicable delay only fueled suspicions of vote-rigging and perceptions of a deliberate attempt to engineer a result that would be acceptable to the country’s all-powerful “establishment”—a term used for the army high command in the main, but technically also including senior members of the judiciary and bureaucracy.

Doubts about the fairness of elections are not new in Pakistan. The February 8 polls differ in one key respect, though. They were held against the backdrop of a brutal state crackdown on the followers of one political party, the PTI, and its leader, cricket star–turned–national icon Imran Khan. Khan had been ousted as prime minister in a vote of no-confidence in April 2022 and arrested on corruption charges a year later, on 9 May 2023, immediately triggering PTI-led protests across the country that spiraled into violence. The state’s harsh measures against the PTI, including mass arrests of suspected perpetrators and intimidation of party supporters, are retribution for that descent into violence. Khan and some of his top associates have now been languishing in jail for more than half a year without knowing the exact charges against them for their alleged involvement in planning the May 9 events.

A spate of judgements against Khan were handed down at the end of last month, just weeks before the scheduled elections, following “public” trials that took place in the prison where he is being held. Among these judgements was an absurd ruling about the allegedly un-Islamic nature of Khan’s third marriage. Widely viewed as unfair, the trials served only to further inflame Khan’s supporters, who were already livid over what they consider to be politically motivated cases.

Khan’s sorry predicament—he has so far received a cumulative prison sentence of 31 years, with more sentences likely to follow—seems to have misled the PML-N and Sharif into a politically dangerous complacency. The three-time former prime minister, who had faced corruption charges and gone into self-imposed exile in Dubai, returned to Pakistan after four years on October 21. But instead of campaigning and firing-up his base with invigorating oratory and detailed plans for a much-needed economic recovery, Sharif kept to himself, staying inside his residential quarters in Lahore. His strange behavior and disregard for the most elementary aspect of the electoral process has been chalked up to illness, security threats, and the belief in his certain success, among other things. PML-N stalwarts claim that he was busy interviewing potential party candidates. But if Imran Khan’s overconfidence led him and the PTI into the May 9 debacle, for which they have suffered the unbridled wrath of the postcolonial authoritarian state, Sharif’s self-imposed distance from voters shattered any prospect of an unprecedented fourth premiership.

The fact that PTI-backed “independents” performed so well on February 8 is a testament to the loyalty of PTI devotees and the ingenuity of the party’s social-media team, not to mention the addition of twenty-million new young voters (who constitute 44 percent of the electorate and are believed to overwhelmingly support Khan’s party) to the rolls. The Election Commission denied the PTI its electoral symbol, a cricket bat, for failing to hold intraparty elections mandated by its constitution, and the Supreme Court upheld the decision. Party symbols are placed on the ballots to help voters, many of whom are illiterate, to identify candidates more easily. But PTI candidates had to contest as independents with separate election symbols, a technicality that was promptly overcome by the party’s brigades of young, tech-savvy supporters, who used social-media apps such as WhatsApp and TikTok to mobilize PTI voters. The PML-N, in contrast, mounted a lackluster campaign. Even in Lahore, the party’s hub and the center of electoral activity in Pakistan, voters showed none of their usual enthusiasm and colorful fanfare for elections.

The final twist in Pakistan’s electoral saga, however, will come when the PTI-backed independents decide where to cast their lot in Parliament. Once notified of their victory, winners have just three days to either declare allegiance to a party in the National Assembly or remain independent. While a committed core is expected to remain loyal to the party, several are expected to leave the PTI and join other parties.

A Win for Democracy?

What do the 2024 elections and the results say about the future of democracy in Pakistan? Have they succeeded in rolling back an autocratic deep state and restored hope in a long-compromised democratic process? It seems there will first have to be some sort of reckoning with the events of May 9 before that can truly happen. The run-up to the election saw the state security bodies try to pulverize the PTI’s support base by arresting the top leadership, harassing workers, and preventing the party from holding election rallies. But relevant state institutions have kept silent about that fateful day and what it represents.

Imran Khan and several of his lieutenants have ascribed the violence of May 9 to the army—an audacious charge that has left the men in khaki fuming at their former protégé. Most PTI supporters believe that Khan was unjustly put away on concocted charges to clear the way for what they perceive as the establishment’s latest political favorite, the PML-N. The PTI’s opponents have tried to capitalize on the destruction and chaos of that day, but the burden of incumbency for the sixteen months between the PTI government’s ouster and August 2023, when the caretaker government took over, has continued to chip away at the PML-N’s popularity, most notably, in Khan’s home province of Punjab.

Without understanding the historical significance of May 9 for the Pakistani establishment, it is impossible to comprehend the bizarre political maneuvers of the past few months. No one fully knows what happened that day or how the army high command reacted to a possible break of command and what it will ultimately mean. Was the PTI leadership contemplating a coup to remove the army chief, General Asim Munir, who was in Qatar at the time? If so, it is not common knowledge in Pakistan. Meanwhile, even though the protest numbers fell well short of Khan’s call, it was the unity of command at the higher echelons of the army that ultimately ensured that the expected “revolution” or “true freedom” (haqaqi azaadi), to use one of Khan’s favorite phrases, did not happen. So why has the army high command not tried to make more of the incident? Perhaps it believes that publicizing a well-planned attempt at dividing the army would threaten its image and prestige.

Whatever the establishment’s reasons for staying mum, its failure to present its side to the people has meant that the harsh punishment it has meted out to those accused of perpetrating the violence has elicited wide sympathy for the PTI and Khan. Imran Khan’s blistering critique of Pakistan’s two political dynasties, the Sharifs and the Bhutto-Zardaris, has also raised his popularity. But he remains at odds with the current army establishment that is supposedly withholding decisions on May 9 cases until after the elections. This gesture to public sentiment gives a clear hint of the military’s thinking: They too want to play to the gallery and, like the politicians, go where the wind is blowing.

It remains to be seen whether the establishment is prepared to loosen the shackles on Khan and release him anytime soon. While there are some indications of the judiciary softening its stance toward the PTI leader in the aftermath of the elections, the results are unlikely to bring any dramatic shift in his status, not with more than 150 or so cases hanging over his head.

If there is a lesson for democracy in Khan’s fall and apparent resurrection, it is that the appearance of victory over an authoritarian state is often a mirage. While the former prime minister and his PTI team have done well in capitalizing on the anti-Sharif and the anti-Bhutto wave in Punjab, they have yet to provide any convincing answers to the province’s many needs. The vote there was against the country’s autocratic establishment, and to that extent it has been a step forward in the democratic process. Khan is more of a populist authoritarian than a beacon of light for his democracy-deprived compatriots, however, leading as he does a party that refuses to talk to political rivals and wants a direct line with the army chief of staff.

But there is a bigger reason why the election outcome is not an advance for democracy: The peoples’ divided mandate only strengthens the hands of the establishment. For one thing, it will have more opportunities to buy the loyalty of independent MPs with all manner of inducements given the alarmingly monetized and transactional nature of politics in Pakistan. The PTI-backed independents in the National Assembly will have to find a way to assert and sustain their collective presence. They can only do that by joining an existing party. Adopting the identity of another party will enable the PTI to get its share of the nominated seats for women, increasing its voting strength in Parliament. But there are lawyers-turned–PTI politicians who are challenging the independent status of the newly elected MPs, arguing that the PTI is still a registered party. If the courts rule in favor of the attorney-politicians, it will help the PTI enormously by enabling it to claim the status of a parliamentary party and receive its share of the nominated seats.

The real significance of the 2024 elections lies in the continuity of an electoral process that has historically been subject to political engineering by Pakistan’s security-oriented state. Further delays in the process, however defective, would have risked martial law and losing even the minor gains made on the “democratic” front. Democracy will remain a distant hope for Pakistan until its politicians know the difference between winning a battle and losing the war. While it is still too early to predict the postelection landscape, it will likely look something like this: a coalition government at the federal level, possibly of the PML-N, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement–Pakistan, and the PPP-P; PML-N rule in Punjab; PTI rule in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; PPP rule in Sindh; and a coalition government in Balochistan. The divided mandate suggests that Parliament, rather than completing its five-year term, may have to be dissolved sooner rather than later and fresh elections called.

The country needs a unifying force, not a divisive one. For now, democracy remains aspirational. The 2024 elections were a necessary, if faltering, step on the path to a democratic future. The mere fact that they took place without any major human catastrophe on election day is itself an achievement. A flawed election is better than no election for a country that has been under military rule for long stretches of time.

The battle between democracy and authoritarianism continues in Pakistan much as it does elsewhere in the world. If the electoral process is to be strengthened and its quality improved, it must be allowed to continue uninterrupted and without undue meddling by intelligence agencies. The 2024 elections in Pakistan were unavoidable given the political stalemate created by the state’s clash with the PTI. But the results have generated another impasse that could plunge the country into an even deeper political crisis. Thus holding elections was a step in the right direction but for all the wrong reasons.

Ayesha Jalal is Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University and author of The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics (2017). Her essay, “Does Democracy Have a Future in Pakistan?” appeared in the January 2024 issue.

 

Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Hussain Ali/Anadolu via Getty Images

 


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