The lesson for Pakistan's elite in the country's 'surprise' election result

The most worrying thing about this vote was that few in the establishment foresaw the outcome

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The official results from Pakistan’s general elections on February 8 are still being tallied, but there is now enough data to see the shape of the national and provincial assemblies emerging from this highly anticipated vote.

The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) party has achieved a disruptive level of success amid a normal voter turnout (47 per cent), despite the imprisonment of its leader, former prime minister Imran Khan, de-recognition of the party by the Election Commission and blackouts of media coverage. The PTI has secured a plurality of seats in the National Assembly, a strong majority in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provincial assembly and a strong second place in Punjab. In short, the elections that were supposed to bury the PTI as a major political force are instead reinvigorating and re-energising it. Assessing the impact on Pakistan's stability is another question entirely – one that depends on just how the country’s military and judiciary chose to respond to this extraordinary challenge from below.

Imran Khan's party was always unlikely to be suppressed by the conventional measures used in establishment efforts to dismantle it

At this stage in the process, the president and the governors of the provinces would normally invite the party with the strongest results to form a government, although in the absence of a majority it is not unheard of for the runner-up to be given a chance to form a coalition. Forming a government without the PTI will be significantly easier at the federal level than in Punjab, Pakistan’s wealthiest and most populous province. The PTI, despite coming in second in Punjab, won enough seats to deny a majority to any other party hoping to build a provincial coalition government. Enabling the creation of a non-PTI majority would likely require significant procedural manipulation (for example, excluding the PTI from allocation of reserved women’s seats).

The most serious immediate crisis will be in KP, sandwiched between Afghanistan to its west and Punjab to the east. Here, the PTI has won an outright majority of seats and cannot be plausibly denied the right to form the provincial government. The PTI’s level of popular support in KP can be gauged from the fact that it was the first party ever to win consecutive elections in 2018; it has now beaten its own record with a third electoral victory.

Maintaining the existing caretaker government or instituting federally directed “governor’s rule” under these circumstances will deal powerful blows to the legitimacy of the political system. This brings very real security risks, given the rebirth of the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency in KP and the growing shadow of ISIS, both of which the military has struggled to defeat.

The crises in Punjab and in the centre of the country will be slower burning, but hardly any less serious in terms of the threat they represent to Pakistanis’ quality of life. First, the process of cobbling together governments will be slow and messy, and the resulting coalitions would likely be unstable. This is the kind of prolonged uncertainty that markets abhor, creating an additional drag on a highly troubled economy. Second, although the International Monetary Fund’s financial support reversed Pakistan’s spiral towards a catastrophic sovereign debt default in 2023, the assistance remains contingent on major policy reform, which demands significant political will to take on elite interests. The intensity of deal-making the army must engage in to help set up and prop up the national and provincial governments is likely to sap much of the political capital needed.

Above all of this looms the question of whether the army, the senior judiciary and the other major political parties (the institutions that allied to eject the PTI from power) have the necessary prudence to de-escalate this extremely volatile situation. It is clear that the results caught them by surprise; but the degree of surprise should itself be a matter of concern and self-reflection. The signs of a PTI comeback were certainly there for anyone who cared to look at what was going on in villages and towns across Punjab and KP.

For one thing, voting choices in much of Punjab and KP can no longer be dictated by big landlords, religious leaders or clan elders. Earning a wage has increasingly become a matter of individual opportunity rather than favours from those on high. One major side effect of this is that political consciousness is no longer seen as something reserved for those in big cities, or higher up on the social ladder. For many ordinary citizens, taking the initiative to organise political debates or support candidates has increasingly become an act of self-emancipation that declares agency in their own lives.

Meanwhile, smartphones with broadband Internet have made it hard for people to see the challenges they experience in purely local terms. YouTube is particularly important as an archive, a town hall and a user-generated soap box that undercuts the Pakistani authorities’ power to censor the TV channels and newspapers or to frame issues as they see fit. WhatsApp in turn allows all of this content to be circulated among friend and family groups for yet more discussion, gathering a shared sense of meaning and identity.

It is therefore unsurprising that Imran Khan’s promise of a new national social contract has resonated so widely and so deeply. Or that the PTI’s base of support has widened far beyond its initial core of military families, businessmen and ambitious lower middle class youth from big cities to include shopkeepers and labourers, as well as middle-aged mums and grandparents in villages and small towns. Or even that they often take cues from social media to organise independently, instead of relying on the party hierarchy.

Given all of this, the PTI was always unlikely to be suppressed by the conventional measures used in establishment efforts to dismantle it. Such actions would have been more effective against a typical leader-centric hierarchical organisation rather than the grassroots movement that had sprung up alongside the formal party.

Any effort by authorities to annul individual constituency results or coerce PTI-aligned candidates to change parties would likely yield highly destabilising results. There is, of course, an even darker precedent to be avoided. In 1979, Pakistan’s then military dictatorship, working with the judiciary, hanged a polarising Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who could not otherwise be silenced nor defeated through elections.

Today, the continued good health of the imprisoned Imran Khan may be essential to maintaining calm and defusing the crisis. The PTI leadership has emphasised peaceful protest after the backlash over May 2023 riots by its supporters against military headquarters in Rawalpindi and Lahore, and so far its members have followed that lead.

As long as the authorities are still in shock, attempting to come to terms with the new political realities, what lies ahead cannot yet be predicted. It is up to the international community to incentivise the establishment to accept the results both in the interest of the system’s health and to avoid repeating the lessons of the past.

Published: February 13, 2024, 3:30 PM