Pakistan’s heavily anticipated general election took place on Feb. 8, 2024, with citizens of the South Asian country hoping that it might prove a step toward ending the nation’s political uncertainty.
The Conversation spoke with Ayesha Jalal, an expert on Pakistan’s political history who teaches at Tufts University, about what the results of the election mean and what could happen next.
Is it clear who will govern Pakistan next?
The results as they stand mean that no party is in a position to form a government on its own. So a coalition government at the federal level is unavoidable.
And this is where things get tricky. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI – headed by jailed former prime minister and Pakistani cricket hero Imran Khan – has emerged as the largest party in the national assembly, with around 93 candidates winning seats as “independents.” They had to run as independents because the party was barred from using its electoral symbol, a cricket bat, after a three-member bench of the supreme court ruled that PTI had failed to hold intraparty elections in line with its constitution.
But with a total of 265 seats in parliament, that means the PTI is still well short of the number needed to form a government on its own.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PMLN, came in second with 78 seats, a tally that is likely to be boosted by the addition of PMLN-aligned independent members of parliament. The party – headed by Shahbaz Sharif, who took over from Khan as prime minister in 2022, and his brother, former three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif – is thought to have the backing of the powerful Pakistani army, but it did not perform as well as expected in the election.
The Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, secured 54 seats, placing it third. This puts it in a position to help another party form a coalition at the federal level.
With the most seats, is the PTI the front-runner to lead a coalition?
The PTI has made it clear that it wants to form a government on its own and believes that its mandate was stolen.
Even before the final election results became known, the PTI claimed it had won 170 or so seats – enough for it to be able to form a government. But that appears to be without evidence.
This suggests the PTI isn’t ready to accept that it did not get enough votes to form a government outright. The party instead is challenging the results, claiming that its vote was suppressed illegally, and the PTI has already formally registered complaints in 18 constituencies.
I believe it is more likely that a coalition will emerge between the other parties, led by the PMLN. But the question is whether that will satisfy an electorate that voted the PTI as the largest party in parliament.
That doesn’t sound very stable. Is it?
It isn’t. Pakistan is now entering an uncertain scenario, which is, in effect, a post-election political crisis.
It also makes it far harder for any government to push through the kind of bold economic packages needed for the country to move forward and escape the deep structural problems that are ailing the economy, such as a limited tax base and reliance on handouts from other countries. Tackling that requires hard, potentially unpopular decisions, which are more difficult when a government is split and has a limited popular mandate.
The country may need another national vote before too long to secure a more stable and workable government.
The election has been called flawed in the West. Is that fair?
By Pakistan’s standards, the actual polling went off relatively peacefully. There was a terrible attack in the restive province of Baluchistan on the eve of the election that killed 28 people. But fears of widespread violence on the day of the election did not materialize.
And while there were undue curbs on political activity in the run-up to the elections, the election itself appears to be largely credible by Pakistani standards, as the country’s foreign ministry has been quick to attest.
The fact that the PTI, a party that is out of favor with Pakistan’s current senior military leadership, has done so well suggests there was no straightforward rigging across the board. There was harassment of PTI voters in some places, but it clearly wasn’t sufficient to make huge inroads into their overall vote.
One can’t compare Pakistan’s democracy with that of the US or any other country. The problem with many outside observers of Pakistan’s politics is that they talk normatively – that is, they see Pakistan’s elections through the eyes of what is generally seen as the norm elsewhere.
But Pakistani politics are unique. The country is a military-dominated state, with generals that have long been involved in the country’s politics – and elections.
But the alternative to managed elections, no matter how messy, is martial law. And a flawed democracy is better than the military jackboot.
More than that, the election itself took place relatively peacefully. There has been a great deal of criticism in the West about cellphones and mobile internet services being blocked on election day. That may seem like unacceptable interference in the electoral process to outside observers. But in Pakistan, there was real concern about cellphones being used to detonate explosive devices.
Will anyone be pleased with the election result?
Ironically, while the PTI’s strong showing represents an anti-establishment vote – and, more specifically, an anti-army vote – the divided national mandate means the army high command has reason to be satisfied with the outcome.
A split national assembly and weak government plays into the military’s hands. Should the PMLN govern as the major party in a coalition, it will be in a position of relative weakness and will need the army’s support, especially if the PTI engages in widespread protests against the election results.
Are there any positives from the election?
Yes, insofar as the process of seeking the peoples’ support has been allowed to continue. But the negatives are seen by most to outweigh the positives and the 2024 elections are being viewed as equally – if not more – manipulated and controlled than the 2018 exercise.
The turnout this time around is estimated to be around 48%, which is lower than in 2018 when it was 51%. The demographic breakdown is encouraging. The youth played a crucial role; 44% of voters were under the age of 35. And women, too, played a larger role in the vote – more women contested and also won seats.
And party politics aside, the result suggests that old tactics to intimidate and suppress voters largely didn’t work. The expectation was that the spate of legal verdicts against Khan just weeks before the election and his continued imprisonment might curb his popularity and mean PTI supporters would stay home. That clearly didn’t happen.
But what they helped deliver may only help continue Pakistan’s political malaise as it heads into a new, uncertain period.