The just-concluded general elections in Pakistan will go down as the most controversial in the country’s troubled political history. The crude manner in which the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) withheld and then announced results on the evening of February 9, after an inexplicably long delay, has rendered the entire electoral exercise a farce.
Though Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI)-affiliated independent candidates were decisively leading in 130 National Assembly seats before the pause, the results announced by the ECP after the 15-hour hiatus changed that trend dramatically. The party, although ahead of its rivals at the time of going to the press, was leading in a far smaller number of races than earlier, raising serious concerns over vote manipulation by the Pakistan establishment. (As of this writing, the complete results have not been released.)
The elections have raised more questions than answers and will further compound the existing political crisis in Pakistan.
From the outset, the PTI was denied a level playing field. Numerous cases were filed against its founder, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, and thousands of its workers and supporters were arrested. Significantly, the party was denied the use of its signature election symbol, the cricket bat, and an unannounced ban was imposed on PTI candidates canvassing, forcing them to run as independents.
Yet, the party showed resilience. Defying all odds, PTI supporters came out in large numbers across Pakistan and have given a verdict against the military establishment’s political re-engineering.
If the strong public mandate is stolen, the cycle of political instability will endure in Pakistan. To date, no prime minister in Pakistan’s constitutional history has completed his five-year term; the trend is likely to persist.
Based on available data released by the ECP, it is quite evident that none of the three major parties — the PTI, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — will win enough seats on their own to muster a simple majority and form the government.
Hence, the emerging dispensation in Pakistan will be a multiparty weak coalition in a hung parliament where enacting legislation will be a difficult task. Due to its inherent weaknesses, the new coalition government will be heavily dependent on the establishment. Hybrid (i.e. military-civilian) rule will therefore continue in the country. The emerging split public mandate will further strengthen the military’s hand as a key stakeholder in the country, notwithstanding that its public image has been badly bruised.
At the provincial level, the PPP and PTI-affiliated independent candidates will respectively form the governments in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, while Punjab will go to the PML-N. A coalition government is expected in Balochistan. With three mainstream political parties ruling three different provinces, it will be difficult for any coalition government at the center to effectively govern the country amid the multitude of economic, security, and diplomatic challenges it confronts.
The composition of the coalition government in the center is yet not clear. To this end, the next 48 hours are crucial.
Alarmingly, the election results show that the state-society gap in Pakistan, witnessed during the riots on May 9 last year, has widened further. Young voters, who comprise 45 percent (56.8 million) of the total 128 million registered voters in Pakistan, have overwhelmingly voted in favor of Khan.
Pakistan is a young nation and if the mandate of the youth is not respected, it will pave the way for long-term political instability. The public perception is unmistakably sympathetic toward Khan, especially after his incarceration and the bogus cases registered against him.
Pakistan is facing a precarious economic situation, and fixing such challenges warranted a strong and popular government capable of making strong decisions.
It is entering a tough fiscal year. The Standby Agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a stopgap emergency arrangement of $3 billion that helped Pakistan avoid sovereign default, is expiring in April, and negotiations for a new program are due in March.
The new dispensation will also have to announce a difficult budget in May, necessitating the withdrawal of subsidies and imposition of new taxes. Similarly, the financial requirement for external payments is enormous: of a total debt of $260 billion, $116 billion is external. Likewise, inflation, which stood at 29.7 percent in December 2023, is likely to stay above 20 percent in 2024. Meanwhile, the growth rate in 2024 will hover around a modest 2 percent, with slim chances of recovery. These economic and fiscal challenges need a powerful government. A weak dispensation will find navigating the country through these troubles difficult.
At the diplomatic level, a weak prime minister will find it challenging to end the country’s isolation and take it forward.
Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan, India, and Iran are at an all-time low. A weak prime minister will not get much traction in India and will struggle to normalize ties with New Delhi. In the U.S. strategic calculus, Pakistan’s salience has dwindled since the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Washington’s indifference toward Islamabad is likely to continue.
Though Pakistan’s relations with China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are normal, these countries are worried about continuing political uncertainty in the country. Their future policies toward Pakistan will largely depend on whether normalcy will return to Pakistan or not in the aftermath of the elections.
On the security front, the situation has deteriorated to an alarming level. Baloch insurgents, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) are carrying out near-daily attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. The military establishment had failed to launch a large-scale military operation due to a lack of public mandate and a narrow fiscal bandwidth. Against this backdrop, an unpopular government will also struggle to stem the tide of rising militancy in the country.
Pakistan is at a knife’s edge, and the three major political parties will do well to step back and evolve a political consensus through a grand political dialogue with a futuristic view of how to take the country forward. No political party alone can take Pakistan out of its current problems. The country needs to heal. For this, a new political consensus among the political stakeholders offers the best way forward.
This is a developing story.