The illusion of change in Pakistan

While the election results may favour Imran Khan and the PTI party, the Establishment will have its way again, holding the turf and encouraging the formation and functioning of a unified government

Updated - February 17, 2024 06:50 pm IST

Published - February 14, 2024 10:27 pm IST

People walk past a banner with a picture of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan outside the party office of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), a day after the general election, in Lahore, Pakistan on February 9.

People walk past a banner with a picture of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan outside the party office of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), a day after the general election, in Lahore, Pakistan on February 9. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far:Pakistan’s recent election was considered a crucial one that would lead to a stable government with a clear mandate, end political instability, and start a process of political healing at the national level, especially in Punjab. The Establishment (the military-dominated deep state) expected the elections would end the Imran revolt and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) experiment. People expected the election process, polling and the final announcement to be free, fair and transparent. The 2024 elections were anything but the above.

According to the results of the National Assembly, the PTI-backed independent candidates have won 93 seats, followed by the Pakistan Muslim League (PML)-N (75), the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) (54), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)-P (17) and the rest by smaller parties and independents. The PML-N, PPP and MQM-P may gain a few more reserved seats (60 for women and 10 for minorities) depending on the seats they have won. Unfortunately for the PTI, it would not get that share, as its candidates contested as independents. What do the above numbers mean for the Parliament and national politics?

The vote belongs to Imran Khan

The first key takeaway from the elections is that the vote belongs to the PTI and Mr. Khan, even though the party did not have a level playing field. Mr. Khan has been arrested and charged with numerous cases and just before the elections, two court verdicts barred him from contesting in elections. The Establishment, pursuing methods to discipline Mr.Khan for the May 9 riots in 2023, forced most of the second-rung PTI leaders to leave the party. In Punjab, Jahangir Tareen launched the Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP) to dent the PTI’s presence in Pakistan’s largest province. Similarly, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) region, Pervez Khattak, another confidant of Mr. Khan and PTI’s former defence minister, formed a faction. In a final blow, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) debarred the PTI from contesting as a party (on the pretext of the party’s failure to hold intra-party elections), and removed the “bat” symbol. With most of his trusted lieutenants leaving, multiple cases charged against him, and he himself incarcerated, it was an arduous task for Mr. Khan to find candidates to contest, keep up morale and ask his cadres to vote.

Despite all the above odds, the PTI-backed candidates won 93 seats for the National Assembly, 18 more than the PML-N. The PTI has secured over half of these seats from Punjab (around 50), supposedly the PML-N’s home ground. In KP also, the PTI has swept, with other political parties securing seats in single digits. Though the PTI may not form the government, the 2024 election clearly belongs to Mr. Khan and the party.

What the Establishment wants, it gets

The election results should see the Establishment’s best-laid plans crashing. The mandate is clearly against what it wanted. Many in Pakistan consider the pro-Imran vote as that against the Establishment. The Establishment would have wanted the PML-N to win, especially in Punjab, and expected its pre-election political engineering to dent the widespread support for Mr. Khan and the PTI. However, both these things have not happened.

This brings us to the second factor of these elections — that the Establishment will still call the shots. Ironically, it should still be happy that the PML-N has no absolute majority and has to work on a coalition to form the government in Islamabad and Lahore. An element of political instability will work in the Establishment’s favour. Whether the vote is what it wanted, or against its plan, the Establishment will continue its political engineering. And political parties will fall in line; those who refuse, will face the wall and the jails, as Mr. Khan’s case shows us.

Nawaz’s diminishing returns

The third aspect of the elections is the Nawaz factor, or rather the lack of it. Nawaz Sharif came back to Pakistan on the Establishment’s approval. The plan was that Mr. Sharif’s return would increase the PML-N’s chances and dent PTI’s, especially in Punjab. However, the return of Mr. Sharif has not catapulted the PML-N back into the driver’s seat — either at the national level or in Punjab. Except for a few seats in Balochistan and KP, most of the seats won by the PML-N come from Punjab. Even in Punjab, the PTI has won almost equal seats for the national and provincial assemblies. The PML-N will be unable to form a government in Punjab without the others’ support. At the national level, discounting the reserved seats, the PML-N had won only ten more seats in 2024, vis-à-vis the 2018 elections.

While one could understand the PML-N’s performance in the 2018 elections with Mr. Sharif exiled and the Establishment favouring Mr. Khan then, its 2024 performance, especially in Punjab, needs introspection. Compare it with the PTI and PPP, both of which have their home turfs — the KP and Sindh — intact and are likely to form a government independently in these two provinces.

Continuing political instability

The fourth takeaway is that the political instability of 2023 will continue into 2024. During 2021-22, the PML-N and PPP came together with a few other parties to form the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to overthrow the PTI government. Eventually, the coalition overthrew Mr. Khan’s government in April 2022, resulting in Shehbaz Sharif becoming the Prime Minister, with support from the PPP and others. The PTI took to the streets against the PDM, creating political instability in Pakistan.

However, the situation hasn’t changed much. Now the PPP and PML-N have agreed to form a government at the national level, along with other political parties minus the PTI. The outcome of this deal, looks more like PDM 2.0. The PTI, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and a few other regional parties have already announced filing cases in courts, renouncing the results, and taking to the streets.

Eventually, the Courts will have to interfere in cases on the election results.

With the PML-N and PPP in government, PTI in the streets, cases in the courts, and the Establishment to decide a unified government, it is not just PDM 2.0, it will be 2023 2.0, a continuation of the political instability of 2023.

The fifth factor is regarding provinces. In KP and Sindh, there is clarity in verdict. People have voted for Mr. Khan and the PTI in KP. Similarly, in Sindh, the PPP has swept the province for national and provincial assembly seats, while MQM-P has retained its stronghold in Karachi. Balochistan, as usual, has seen mixed results, with no single party having substantial numbers — both for the national and provincial assemblies. For the provincial assembly, the PPP and JUI-F have secured 11 seats each, followed by the PML-N (10), PTI-backed independents (6) and others (13). Regional parties have been protesting against the results on charges of rigging.

Regional parties losing relevance

Sixth is the curious case of regional and religious political parties in the 2024 elections. At the national level, except for the MQM-P (14 seats for the national assembly and 28 for the Sindh provincial assembly), no other regional party from the Sindh, Balochistan and KP have made an impact. The Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), Awami National Party (ANP), Balochistan National Party (BNP), and others from the three provinces have made little or no impact. The PML-Q from Punjab could win only three for the national assembly.

Equally important is the case of religious political parties — JI, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) and the newly formed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The JI could not win a single seat for the national assembly; its emir — Sairajul Haq, taking responsibility has announced his resignation. The JUI-F has survived with a few seats for the national assembly (03), and a few for the provincial assemblies of KP and Balochistan. The TLP could secure only one seat — that too for the provincial assembly from Punjab. Therefore, for the time being, both regional and religious parties (perhaps except the MQM), are likely to remain provincial.

To conclude, the Establishment will hold the turf. Despite the PTI-backed candidates gaining more seats, a cursory overview of the elections will reveal the same at both the national and provincial level.

D. Suba Chandran is a Professor and Dean at the National Institute of Advanced Studies at Bengaluru and coordinates “Pakistan Reader” at NIAS.

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