Pakistanis protest elections as Khan, Sharif camps claim they can govern

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ADNAN AAMIR

ISLAMABAD — The parties of Pakistan’s dueling former Prime Ministers Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif have both claimed they can form governments after the country’s general elections, while protests spread over allegations that the results were tampered with.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) finished releasing provisional results on Sunday afternoon for 264 of 266 contestable seats, with one result withheld and one vote postponed. The numbers, out long after they were expected early Friday, showed independents — mostly backed by the jailed Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) — leading with 101 seats. They were followed by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) at 75 and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari at 54.

After months of sparring with Pakistan’s military establishment, the PTI was barred from running candidates under its own banner, while Khan was hit with multiple jail sentences. Most analysts thought the groundwork had been prepared for an easy victory by the PML-N, believed to be the preferred choice of the powerful army. But the strong performance of PTI-supported independents has created a more complex picture.

Gohar Ali Khan, chairman of the PTI, told reporters on Saturday that the party intends to form a central government, as well as provincial governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

But experts are skeptical that Khan’s allies can pull it off.

Gohar Ali Khan, chairman of the PTI, holds a news conference at the party’s office in Islamabad on Feb. 10.   © Reuters

Abdul Jabbar Nasir, an election analyst in Karachi, said the PTI only has a realistic chance of forming a provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where its independent candidates swept most seats. “Despite its success, the PTI does not have the numbers to form governments in Punjab and the center,” he said.

In Punjab, the most populous and politically crucial province, the PTI’s independents were neck and neck with the PML-N, at 138 seats to 137.

Pakistan’s system of reserved seats is part of the post-election numbers game, and it puts the PTI in a difficult position.

On top of the contested seats — normally 266, although one seat’s election was postponed this time — the National Assembly has 60 seats reserved for women and 10 set aside for religious minorities. These seats are distributed among parties in proportion to the seats that they won through direct elections.

Since PTI members were competing as independents, they do not qualify for these reserved seats. Nasir said that unless PTI-backed candidates join another party, their side stands to lose up to 80 reserved seats in all assemblies combined. The candidates “will have three days after the official notification of their election to join a party, to be eligible for reserved seats,” he said.

But the PTI has few options of parties to which it could send its members. “They can join either Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM), PML-Zia or Jamaat-e-Islami. All of these parties come with their own set of problems, which the PTI might want to avoid,” Nasir said.

In any case, “even if PTI candidates joined one of these parties and got the reserved seats, they will not be able to use the reserved seats for electing a prime minister due to election rules,” he said. The PML-N and PPP, which are engaged in their own talks to form a coalition government, would not have that problem because they already submitted lists of reserved seat candidates to the ECP.

An introductory meeting of PML-N and PPP leadership took place in Lahore on Friday, and both sides have expressed interest in working together.

The PML-N has also invited the leadership of Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM) to Lahore to discuss coalition plans. The MQM has won 17 seats in the National Assembly from Karachi — a figure the PTI has questioned, claiming that its independents won those seats but the results were manipulated.

The PML-N and PPP are no strangers to each other. They teamed up to oust Imran Khan in a no-confidence vote in April 2022, elevating Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, to prime minister. But analysts who spoke with Nikkei Asia were unenthusiastic about the prospect of a repeat.

Asad Toor, a political analyst in Islamabad, said another PML-N and PPP coalition government would be “deja vu of the 16-month Shehbaz Sharif government, which was weak and failed to deliver.” That government had scrambled to avoid a sovereign debt default while grappling with devastating floods and constant agitating by the PTI for snap polls, before it dissolved for a caretaker administration to oversee the elections.

Ikram ul Haq, an expert on economy and taxation, believes that a PPP-PML-N coalition would have a legitimacy problem.

“Daunting economic challenges on all fronts, especially negotiations with the IMF, will further [intensify] for want of political stability, and the PTI will continue to pose challenges to the government,” Haq said. Pakistan is relying on a $3 billion International Monetary Fund bailout.

Already, the PTI is turning up the heat with protests. It has called for nationwide, peaceful demonstrations on Sunday afternoon over alleged election tampering.

Police officers stand guard during a protest over the elections in Karachi.   © Reuters

The PTI has also taken to the X social media platform to spread rigging accusations and share what it says is evidence. On Saturday, X was hit by outages in Pakistan, confirmed by internet watchdog Netblocks.

Separately, demonstrations erupted across 15 locations in the southwestern province of Balochistan, shutting down highways. Four ethnic nationalist parties in the province, who claim they are victims of tampering, announced an indefinite protest movement on Saturday evening. They intend to block the entrance to the Balochistan Assembly to prevent the oath-taking of elected members and set up a parallel public assembly in protest.

None of this bodes well for establishing the stable governance Pakistan needs to correct its economic problems.

“If the PPP and PML-N could not agree on forming a coalition government, then the alternative is holding another election right away, which Pakistan can’t afford,” the Karachi analyst Nasir said.

Shahid Maitla, another analyst in Islamabad, believes that a PPP and PML-N coalition would be a feeble government. But he predicted even more pressure from the establishment on the PTI. “Imran Khan and [the PTI] will not be allowed to scuttle the democratic process the way he did during [Shehbaz’s] government,” he said.