Pakistan’s voters tell the generals where to put it

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A supporter of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) kisses a portrait of jailed former prime minister and party leader Imran Khan during a protest in Peshawar, Pakistan.
image: getty images

The delay was unusual even by the standards of Pakistan’s messy politics. Late on February 11th, nearly three days after a legal deadline, the country’s election commission at last released provisional results of general elections held on February 8th. No party obtained a majority, but the vote nonetheless produced a clear winner: Imran Khan, the imprisoned former prime minister who was barred from standing and whose party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (pti), was subject to a de facto ban.

Voters disregarded the hints to shun Mr Khan, casting their ballots for Mr Khan’s candidates anyway. Members of the pti, standing as independents, bagged 92 of 264 parliamentary seats. The Pakistan Muslim League (pml-n) of Nawaz Sharif, Mr Khan’s chief rival and a three-time former prime minister, was widely expected to win. It limped in second with 75 seats.

Despite winning the largest number of seats, the pti will not be able to form a government, having ruled out a coalition with any of the other parties. Instead, Mr Sharif has staked a claim to power. Shehbaz Sharif, his younger brother and the president of the pml-n, has begun talks with the Pakistan Peoples Party, which won 54 seats, and several other smaller parties to form a government of national unity. He appears to be backed in his efforts by the army chief, who praised the “free and unhindered” election. pml-n has also approached winning candidates loyal to Mr Khan to switch sides. At least one has already jumped.

Mr Khan’s party claims to have evidence that it would have won a majority of seats if the election had not been rigged by its rivals and the army. Mr Sharif’s party denies the allegations. “How can they claim rigging when they are the single largest party in the National Assembly?” says Khawaja Asif, a pml-n leader in Sialkot. Yet signs of tampering are plentiful. The election commission, which had been instrumental in obstructing Mr Khan and the pti in the run-up to the election, blamed the days-long delay in releasing results on unspecified “internet issues”. Over the weekend it initially barred returning officers from certifying results in multiple constituencies and ordered a repeat of the vote in dozens of polling stations after reports of snatched and destroyed ballot papers (it later reversed course, in keeping with its pre-election stance). In at least 24 constituencies, 13 of which were won by pml-n, the number of rejected ballots was higher than the margin of victory, opening the door to legal challenges.

The dubious electoral process was preceded by a systematic campaign, orchestrated by the army, against Mr Khan and the pti. It was stripped of its electoral symbol, a cricket bat, in effect dissolving the party. The Supreme Court sealed the deal by overturning a successful challenge to this in a lower court. Many pti leaders were imprisoned or disqualified. Those who stood as independents were prevented from campaigning openly. A week before the election, Mr Khan, already in prison on a separate charge, was sentenced to three long prison terms in quick succession on counts of corruption, disclosing state secrets and getting married illegally. On election day, a shutdown of mobile phone and data networks hampered voters’ ability to find and access polling stations.

The result is a rebuke to Pakistan’s army, which has effectively ruled the country through a loyal caretaker government for the past few months and had pulled out all the stops to force Mr Khan and the pti into political irrelevance. It may eventually prove a turning point in the generals’ ability to influence Pakistan’s politics. Yet the immediate consequence will be a prolonged period of political instability as the lack of a clear majority for any party combined with credible allegations of widespread rigging will make it difficult for any government, when one is eventually formed, to enjoy legitimacy.

Blatant rigging in some instances could be reversed by legal challenges, allowing pti to edge closer to the pml-n before parliament is set to convene at the latest on February 29th. Yet the pti will probably remain confined to the opposition benches. Mr Sharif looks set to cobble together a coalition similar to one that governed the country for 16 months after Mr Khan was ousted in a vote of no confidence in April 2022. Pakistanis voted for a change in the old way of doing politics. They look likely to get more of the same.