What on Earth is going on in Pakistan?

Ahyan Sikandar - Feb. 19, 2024 - 8 min read - #Politics

On the 8th of February, Pakistan’s population flocked to the polling stations, with analysts predicting a return to power for Imran Khan’s party - Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Although the people delivered as expected the events of the night that followed were simultaneously expected and unexpected in a typically Pakistani way. 

Since Khan was ousted in a vote of no confidence in 2022, his party had marked this election as the day of reckoning for Nawaz Sharif and co. However the near two years in between were full of challenges and adversities for PTI. In November 2022, Khan was a victim of an assassination attempt that he has dubbed part of the ‘London Plan’ - a scheme he believes his opposition have launched to permanently remove him from politics in order to reinstate Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) as PM. Although he was left with only a handful of injuries to his legs, the events that ensued after this completely crippled his party. PTI workers and politicians have repeatedly found themselves thrown into jail on largely bogus cases culminating in a series of Kangaroo cases targeting Khan leading to multiple convictions between August 2023 and February 2024 totalling over 27 years to be served concurrently. These cases ranged from a case on religious laws on marriage that were deemed to be broken when he married Bushra Bibi to painting him as a threat to national security in the ‘Cipher case’, criminalising Khan on almost every basis worthy of respect in Islamic Pakistani society. Nevertheless, PTI battled on until the 22nd when the Supreme Court banned its iconic bat symbol - effectively banning the party - on the grounds that intra-party elections weren’t conducted freely and fairly. This meant that any PTI candidate would have to run as an independent with the party’s election winners then joining a smaller minority party post election. 

Then came the eight of February. An election that had been brewing finally got the chance to simmer in the limelight of international media as the world watched on whilst the 5th biggest population exercised its right to suffrage. At 8:00 local time, almost every station opened, a remarkable feat considering the previous failures. Despite being drastically lowered, violence continued particularly in Karachi reportedly by supporters of MQM, a party focused on the coastal city. As the day progressed, one thing became clear. The independents had an overwhelming majority; the people had given PTI and Khan their mandate. We saw multiple Portillo moments with political stalwart Khawaja Asif, a senior in PMLN with backing from the nuclear-armed army, trailing by a huge margin to Rehana Dar, an independent backed by Khan’s PTI running solely to gain vengeance for her son who was abducted previously by the regime and thrown into jail. A more poignant example has to be that of Nawaz Sharif. The ex-PM who had returned to Pakistan in late October of 2023 aiming to win a fourth term in office, trailed to Yasmin Rasheed - another PTI backed independent candidate, however one who could not even campaign due to her being thrown into prison by her political opponents. By midnight the PTI announced on its social media that it was in line to win 154 seats, with PMLN winning 47 along with Sindh’s main party Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPP). However at midnight results stopped coming in. 

Videos emerged of rigging as the validity of these elections plunged into doubt within hours. The all important documents in elections in Pakistan are the form 45 and 47(a piece of paper that states the amounts of votes registered in each specific polling station) whilst the form 45 states the total across the stations in a particular constituency. As the PTI scrambled to obtain these papers, the generals woke up to maintain army control in Pakistan. The aforementioned Khawaja Asif, turned his 50 thousand deficit with 1% of the constituencies votes left into a victory of 18 thousand as his opponent seemingly lost 38 thousand votes. Sharif’s Lahore constituency was no different. He also overturned a huge margin, however his form 45 was clearly tampered with. Firstly the third biggest party in the PPP gained absolutely zero votes. As well as this, in a complete democratic failure, the total correct votes outnumbered the total votes. No doubt there was rigging and no doubt the rigging was completely laughable. It seemed like they didn’t even try to hide it. 

What do the generals want? Well for them, the key word is continuity. Continuity of unchecked power to do as they please - often above the law. The Sharifs are the men to do that. In Nawaz Sharif’s previous terms, the army reigned supreme consolidating the view that in other countries the country has the army but in Pakistan the army has the country. Khan is a different picture. His economic policies in his term starting 2018 often compromised the army in favour of increased public expenditure, angering the generals. Additionally, Khan had anti-US policies, mainly about trying to decrease American military presence in the country. For an Army that had been reliant on US backed operations in the country during the so-called war on terror, this was crippling. Once again, the army now looked useless therefore when the decision was made to in fact reduce army expenditure, it looked like the obvious thing to do. Sharif is the man the army want, Khan is the man people want but the army will do anything they can even if that means taking away the people’s mandate.

After the night of selection that followed the election, results started flowing in after 7:00 the next morning. Results that were far different from expected. The PTI’s independents only won 93 seats, PMLN won 75 and the PPP won 54. This sparked protests globally as overseas Pakistanis took to the streets in London, Paris and New York, just to name a few. However with no party winning the 169 seats required, the political landscape plummeted into an era of confusion as every party threw everything at trying to end up on the ruling side of government which has to be announced by the 29th of Feb as per Pakistani law, although as things have been going who knows whether that ruling will stand. What was seemingly an obvious coalition between PMLN and Bhutto’s PPP now looks complicated. In the background of court cases judging the verdicts of specific seats, Bhutto confirmed that he wanted to be PM in the case of any coalition with PMLN, something that’s a non negotiable for Sharif and co. Bhutto also announced they would only announce their plans after Khan’s independents gave confirmation of which party they’d be joining. The PTI, still taking orders from Khan in jail, declared they would never be making a coalition with anyone they classed riggers - PMLN, PPP and MQM. They’re also intent on not accepting the official announced results, claiming they won 180 seats and PMLN won only 17 based on the Form 45s they’ve been given. It seems now that the elections will be decided in the courts, if not the streets instead of the polling stations. Rule of law, accountability and the power of the ballot box in Pakistan has once again been compromised, but this time the people will not let go as easily as the days of General Musharaf.

Pakistan’s future looks uncertain. Multiple parties have claimed themselves as the winners with multiple different results of the election being announced. The road to the 29th looks windy, however one thing is certain, whoever becomes PM will not last a full five year term if Pakistan’s history is anything to go off of.