The voters of Pakistan tell the generals where to put it

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THE’S CLEAR it was unusual even by the standards of Pakistan’s messy politics. Late on February 11, almost three days after the legal deadline, the country’s electoral commission released the final provisional results of the general elections held on February 8. No party won a majority, but the vote nevertheless produced a clear winner: Imran Khan, the jailed former prime minister who has been banned from standing and whose his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (P.T.I), subject to a de facto ban.

Voters did not dismiss the suggestions to avoid Mr Khan, casting their votes for Mr Khan’s candidates anyway. Members of the P.T.I, standing as independents, getting 92 of 264 parliamentary seats. Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif, Mr Khan’s main rival and former three-time prime minister, was widely expected to win. It came second with 75 seats.

Despite winning the most number of seats, the P.T.I they will not be able to form a government, having rejected a coalition with any of the other parties. Instead, Mr Sharif has claimed power. Shehbaz Sharif, his younger brother and president of the PML-N, has started talks with the Pakistan People’s Party, which won 54 seats, and several other smaller parties to form a national unity government. He seems to be supported in his efforts by the army chief, who praised the “free and unhindered” election. PML-N He has also approached winning candidates loyal to Mr Khan to switch sides. At least one has already jumped.

Mr Khan’s party claims it has evidence 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 commander in Sialkot. But there are plenty of warning signs. The election commission, which had been instrumental in banning Mr. Khan and the P.T.I before the election, he blamed the days-long delay in publishing results on unspecified “internet issues”. Over the weekend he barred returning officers from verifying results in several constituencies and ordered a repeat vote in dozens of polling stations after reports of ballot papers being looted and to destroy (he later reversed course, in line with his pre-election stance). In at least 24 constituencies, 13 of these were won PML-Nthe number of rejected votes exceeded the margin of victory, opening the door to legal challenges.

The dubious election process was preceded by a systematic campaign, organized by the army, against Mr. Khan and the P.T.I. His election symbol, a cricket bat, was removed, effectively dissolving the party. The High Court sealed the deal by overturning a successful challenge in a lower court. a lot P.T.I leaders were imprisoned or disqualified. Those who stood as independents were barred from openly campaigning. A week before the election, Mr Khan, who was already in prison on a separate charge, was quickly sentenced to three long prison terms for corruption, revealing state secrets and illegally marrying. On election day, the shutdown of mobile phone and data networks hampered voters’ ability to locate and enter polling stations.

The result is a rebuke to Pakistan’s military, which has effectively ruled the country through a loyal caretaker government for the past few months and had pulled out all the stops for Mr Khan and the P.T.I into political irrelevance. It may finally be a turning point in the generals’ ability to influence Pakistani politics. But the immediate result will be a long 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 finally formed, to enjoy legitimacy.

Obvious rigging may in some cases be overturned by legal challenges, allowing P.T.I to get closer to the PML-N before parliament is due to convene at least on February 29. But the P.T.I he may remain confined to the opposition benches. Mr Sharif appears set for a coalition similar to the one that ruled the country for 16 months after Mr Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April 2022. Pakistan voted for change in the old way of doing politics. They are likely to get more of the same.

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