Candidates associated with jailed former prime minister Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice party, known by its Urdu acronym PTI, won at least 93 seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly. That put them ahead of the centre-right party led by another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was widely seen as the preferred candidate by Pakistan’s generals to lead the next government in a country where selection is often cast as “choice. .”
Khan, who was ousted from power in 2022 amid a fallout from the top brass, is languishing behind bars on four separate court convictions that his supporters believe he has politically motivated. Legal suspension removed him personally from controversy and forced PTI allies who were able to contest the vote to run as independents only.
Nevertheless, Pakistani voters saw the brutal tactics used against PTI and seemed to rally around the beleaguered group. Khan’s party also used a large social media footprint and technology such as artificial intelligence to send their leader’s message to voters, regardless of legal restrictions against them. On Sunday, PTI officials still pointed to evidence of apparent voting in more than a dozen seats they said they should have won and launched a series of court actions to challenge those results.
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But even the current mandate they received is amazing. “The vote was an incredible show of defiance. This was supposed to be the most prearranged election in Pakistan’s history,” Omar Waraich, a special adviser at the Open Society Foundations and a longtime Pakistan watcher, told me. “Instead, it became our- peaceful out against the powerful military establishment.”
Khan and his populist PTI came to power in 2018 through an election that, at the time, was seen as one where the military controlled the levers of power in its favour. At the time, Sharif was a politician drowning in court cases after which he fled the country in exile. But cracks appeared in Khan’s relationship with the military, and eventually wider frustration over his handling of the government snowballed into a political crisis that saw his rule end in a vote of no confidence. To this day, Khan and his friends laugh at the deep state intrigues – and insist that the US intervened – that removed him from power.
The interim regime that followed included both Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the left-wing Pakistan People’s Party, led by the son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. kill Both parties are run as teams of dynastic families and have long been fixtures in Pakistani politics. But they struggled, as Khan did, with the economic problems plaguing the country and failed to gain popular support. Sharif and others in Pakistan’s civilian political establishment pinned their hopes on a new election to boost their legitimacy.
That did not materialize, even as the military-led deep state seemed to be going out of its way to thwart PTI’s chances. “Pakistani voters defied all odds and a range of major electoral hurdles to deliver a clear message: that they no longer welcome military interference in politics, and that they have a move on from the two dynastic parties that have ruled Pakistan for decades. Madiha Afzal, a Pakistani scholar at the Brookings Institution, told me. “That message in itself is a moment of hope for Pakistan’s democracy.”
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It is far from certain that PTI-aligned politicians will form the next government. Technically Sharif’s party won the majority of seats because Khan’s friends were not allowed to run under their party’s banner. Some of those elected lawmakers could still defect to a broader coalition led by Sharif, who boasted on polling day that he would not even need coalition talks until a fourth term to win his position.
“The future government may include some candidates who run on Khan’s party ticket. All the candidates were ordered by a court to run as independents before the election, which now opens the possibility that some of them will be poached by rival parties in the coming days,” mo colleagues Rick Noack, Shaiq Hussain and Haq Nawaz Khan reported from Pakistan. “This could turn the upcoming coalition talks into a very difficult process and deepen polarization between Khan’s supporters and his opponents in this nuclear-armed nation of 240 million.”
The country’s military authorities may be defeated by the vote. But they could also see the result as another reason to hold back power. “The past can be another country as the election showed,” wrote Pakistani reporter Abbas Nasir, referring to Pakistan’s respective efforts to overcome a legacy of military coups and interventions. “But we don’t know that we learn from our mistakes. It is true that you can ‘manage’ the electoral process – but only to a certain extent and no further.”
Any result that freezes PTI out of power will inevitably be viewed as suspicious. “There is serious doubt about the legitimacy of these elections and therefore they will have no credibility in the eyes of the people,” Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a former prime minister of Pakistan, told the Guardian. a way for them to get legitimacy to bring in Imran Khan. No solution without Khan will be possible. But the question is: will the [military] place to accept that?”
The generals may heed the warnings in statements from governments and officials elsewhere, including some US lawmakers, urging Pakistani authorities to uphold democracy and prevent to avoid election. But it was the voices closer to home that grew even louder.
“With the odds stacked so high against them, the voters got their democracy back,” Waraich said. “Although Khan’s party has been denied a majority, and may not form government, it is clear that there is now an irreversible trend. Young Pakistanis know that they, and not the men in uniform, will make decisions about their future.”