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Pakistan’s Lukewarm February Election: Another Sign of South and Southeast Asia’s Democratic Failure

Pakistan’s Lukewarm February Election: Another Sign of South and Southeast Asia’s Democratic Failure

19-05-2024
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10 mins Read
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Pakistan, home to over 231 million people, officially ranks as the world’s fourth-largest democracy. However, its history is rife with democratic setbacks. It took nine turbulent years to draft its first constitution, during which time there were five different prime ministers in a chaotic transition amid unrest and violent disruptions. Tragic events like the assassinations of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and provincial assembly speaker Shahid Ali underscored the volatility of Pakistan’s political scene. Violence persisted with the execution of former President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the assassination of his daughter, ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The 1970 inaugural national election led to a constitutional crisis, ultimately resulting in the birth of Bangladesh. Accusations of electoral strife and contested legitimacy persist, often directed at the military, known as the ‘Deep State’ or ‘The Establishment’.

The February 8th national election in Pakistan marked a significant moment in the country’s political landscape. Against a backdrop of upheaval, including the removal of former Prime Minister Imran Khan through a no-confidence vote in April 2022, the stage was set for unprecedented developments. Khan’s ousting sparked mass protests and a surge in unity among longstanding political adversaries. Shahbaz Sharif led a coalition of the PPP and PML-N that opposed Khan’s efforts to hasten an early election. Khan’s subsequent legal battles, including over 150 corruption charges, further destabilized his party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI). Escalating tensions led to violent clashes, with Khan’s arrest in May 2023 igniting widespread protests and unrest across the nation. The government’s harsh response, including arrests and military court trials, crippled PTI’s leadership and forced the party to shift to online activism. Amidst legal battles and government crackdowns, the date for the national election was set for February 2024, prompting all parties to prepare for the electoral contest.

The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), under the leadership of ousted PM Khan, experienced a string of setbacks in the run-up to the eagerly anticipated election that significantly weakened their position. The Election Commission of Pakistan’s decision to invalidate PTI’s registration dealt a severe blow, rendering them unable to contest under their party banner or iconic ‘Cricket Bat’ symbol. Instead, PTI candidates were compelled to run as independent contenders with disparate symbols, posing a significant challenge in a country where voters often rely on party symbols due to low literacy rates. Despite PTI’s legal efforts to contest the ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the election commission’s decision, leaving PTI candidates with limited avenues to compete in the impending election. Undeterred, PTI adapted its strategy, capitalizing on social media as a primary platform. Employing innovative tactics, including AI simulations of Khan’s presence and voice, PTIutilized archived speeches and audiovisual elements to maintain visibility and engage voters. Social media channels also played a crucial role in disseminating vital information about PTI candidates and their constituencies, despite challenges such as the allocation of obscure symbols by the Electoral Commission and restrictions on mentioning Khan’s name in mainstream media.

Following the imposition of restrictions and limitations, “PTI-affiliated independent candidates” encountered numerous obstacles during their campaigning efforts, alleging systematic hindrances imposed by authorities. Formal rallies in major urban centres were prohibited, and candidates reported facing attacks from security forces and purported mobs aligned with PML-N and PPP, even during closed-door meetings. Observers, including bodies such as the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, highlighted what appeared to be instances of pre-election rigging, raising concerns about the fairness of the impending elections. PTI and its leaders were subjected to various forms of harassment, including the confiscation of nomination papers, arbitrary arrests of candidates and their supporters, systematic rejection of nomination papers, and disruptions of campaign events. These actions fueled widespread allegations of “election engineering” and manipulative practices designed to tilt the playing field in favour of certain political factions, thereby undermining confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. In a particularly egregious incident, former PTI cabinet member Usman Dar resigned from the party and withdrew from the election race after police officials assaulted his elderly mother, Rehana Dar, in her own home. Subsequently, Rehana Dar made a televised appearance, expressing her resolve to enter the election fray and challenge Khawaja Asif. She expressed, “You have achieved what you wanted by making my son [Usman Dar] step down at gunpoint, but my son has quit politics, not me. Now you will face me in politics.” Even their online presence was allegedly censored. On January 26, 2024, PTI’s official website, insaf.pk, and a separate website for disseminating information regarding the individual electoral symbols of the party’s candidates were blocked in Pakistan. Additionally blocked was a voter helpline that the party established. Previously, social media was blocked in the country during the party’s virtual electoral events on at least three separate occasions, as per internet watchdog NetBlocks. Zarrar Khuhro, a Pakistani journalist, columnist, and talk show host, wrote on Al Jazeera,

“Right now, that vengeance is on full, naked display, with just about every trick in the book, traditional and brand-new, being used to decimate the former governing party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).”

At this point, it might seem that the article is overemphasizing Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, keeping all others in the dark. Actually, following Imran Khan’s removal, Pakistani politics underwent a seismic shift, evolving into a battleground between the Establishment and PTI. Khan’s relentless anti-corruption and anti-dynastic stance posed a formidable challenge to entrenched parties like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). In response, these traditional rivals joined forces, allegedly with support from influential military quarters. This unlikely alliance sparked conflicts with the PTI, granting PML-N and PPP unprecedented freedom in their election campaigns, shielded from interference by the caretaker government. Despite facing allegations of electoral misconduct, both parties remained unscathed by any punitive measures from the election commission or the caretaker administration, casting doubt on the integrity of the electoral process. However, it’s imperative to shed light on these two major parties within this broader context to provide a comprehensive understanding of the political landscape in Pakistan.

The Pakistan Muslim League, particularly known as Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), has historically wielded significant political influence in Pakistan, predominantly in the province of Punjab. But Punjab has 141 seats out of a total of 264 in the national assembly. So it is said, “Whoever wins Punjab, he wins Pakistan.” However, the emergence of Imran Khan, another son of Punjab, disrupted PML-N’s dominance, relegating its once formidable political empire to a distant memory. In the last election, even the Punjab Provincial Council swung in favor of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI). Nevertheless, following Imran’s ousting, Shahbaz Sharif assumed the prime ministership, with veteran leader Nawaz Sharif returning to helm the party, presenting a renewed opportunity for PML-N. Many speculated that Nawaz Sharif enjoyed tacit support from the ‘deep state.’ Despite trailing behind Imran Khan significantly in public opinion polls, PML-N was the second most popular party. However, according to Al Jazeera, PML-N struggled to draw the expected crowds to public gatherings, even in Punjab.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, has historically been a formidable force in Pakistani politics, particularly in its stronghold of Sindh, Bhutto’s birthplace. However, the party’s performance in recent elections has been lackluster, failing to live up to its storied name. In the 2013 national elections, the PPP secured only 42 seats and 15% of the votes, a figure that dwindled further in 2018 to 53 seats but 13% of the votes. The PPP struggled to overcome the leadership gap following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, given its dynastic structure that favors the Bhutto family. Bilawal Bhutto, the current chairman, lacks political experience at 35, despite his prestigious background. Karachi, the PPP’s stronghold, has seen little improvement under its rule, with accusations of feudal governance favoring the elite. Imran Khan’s anti-corruption stance has further weakened PPP support, as reflected in surveys predicting dwindling backing, even in Karachi. This analysis draws from reputable sources and pre-poll surveys, offering insights into the state and prospects of these major Pakistani parties.

Despite facing a crackdown and censorship, Imran Khan retained his popularity among Pakistanis, even though his four-year rule wasn’t without challenges. Interviews with Pakistani students and a staff officer at Georgetown University Qatar revealed strong support for Khan. All the students turned out to be hardcore Khan supporters who viewed him as a leader who sacrificed personal luxury to fight for the country’s rights, contrasting him with corrupt politicians who enriched themselves at the expense of the nation. While acknowledging Khan’s government wasn’t flawless, they cited initiatives like the ‘Sehat Card’ for free healthcare and the ‘Kisan Card’ for farmers as significant milestones. They also praised his efforts to bring back Pakistani experts from international organizations to contribute to domestic projects, contrasting his leadership with the self-serving agendas of previous administrations. Recently, Imran Khan has been known for his support of the young generation; thus, many people term the party “Youthi,” referring to the youth. However, the mentality of the adults is not much different. The author interviewed a senior staff officer at the same university, a Karachi native, where PTI secured around 10% of the seats. He believes that the support for PTI stems from people aligning with those who stand for justice and empowerment, as they are the only ones fighting for that. Similar to the students’ perspective, he says, “Imran could live a luxurious life, and he was living that with her wife, Jemaima Goldsmith. But he had left everything just for the people of Pakistan. Even he could escape amid the crackdown on him, the way Nawaz Sharif did. But he stayed, stayed with the people, led protests, got shot, and now he is in jail. But he has not left his people alone.” He disagreed with the notion of pitting the whole military against Imran Khan, suggesting that certain generals, who benefit from a specific country (the USA), are the driving force behind these events.

The tension between ‘Imran vs. the Military and the United States’ defined the political landscape. Imran Khan’s removal from office marked a significant juncture. Despite his reputation for honesty and commitment to public welfare, his government grappled with economic challenges, notably regarding whether to seek IMF assistance. Leveraging the threat of a no-confidence vote, he openly accused the military and the US of conspiring against the elected government. These allegations struck a chord with many Pakistanis, given the country’s history of military interventions in civilian affairs. Pakistan’s strategic relationship with the US, stemming from its involvement in the Afghan-Soviet conflict, had profound consequences. This history cultivated widespread anti-US sentiment among the Pakistani populace, viewing the US as an imperialistic force seeking to manipulate and control Pakistan. Imran Khan capitalized on this sentiment, framing his refusal of IMF aid as a stand against surrendering to US influence. His vocal opposition to the US resonated deeply with many, positioning him as a defender of Pakistani sovereignty. Moreover, Imran’s intentional public naming of powerful military figures in perceived conspiracies against him was an unconventional yet effective strategy. By challenging the establishment openly, he tapped into widespread disillusionment with traditional power structures, positioning himself as a champion against establishment interference. Imran’s confrontational stance amidst crackdowns struck a chord with many Pakistanis, who saw him as a beacon of hope for preserving honor, freedom, and equality, resulting in a clear lead in pre-election surveys.

On February 8th, election day unfolded with anticipation and intrigue, signaling the climax of two years of political turmoil. Pre-poll surveys hinted at a potential majority for Imran Khan’s PTI, though skepticism lingered regarding the “deep state’s” favoritism towards Nawaz Sharif’s PML. Despite a tranquil voting process, concerns arose over the suspension of mobile and internet services by the Election Commission. As results trickled in slowly from 7 p.m. onwards, Imran’s nominees surged ahead in 140 seats, with a narrow margin falling in the rest. A party needs 134 seats for an absolute majority. Yet, the abrupt slowdown in result transmission sparked fears of electoral irregularities, casting doubt on the PTI’s path to power amidst allegations of rigging. If the PTI’s claim is true, this has been one of the worst riggings in electoral history. At the end of voting, each candidate’s vote count at every polling station is recorded on Form 45. One copy is given to the candidate’s polling agent, and another to the returning officer. The officer consolidates the data into Form 47, which is sent to the Election Commission for the official results declaration. TV channels use Form 45 data to publish unofficial results. Thus, the unofficial and official results always remain the same. However, on election night, the Commission prohibited TV channels from doing so, which was confusing. Additionally, the Commission’s server crashed, halting the official result announcement and leading to a significant delay.

As dawn broke, Form 47 unveiled a turnaround in results. Despite leading in Form 45, many constituencies have Imran-backed Independent candidates saw reversals in Form 47, with PML-N candidates now in the lead. In some areas, vote counts remained unchanged, but PML-N names replaced Imran’s candidates. Instances of inflated vote counts beyond registered voters emerged in Form 47. PTI, citing Form 45 data, protested on social media and in front of electoral offices, leading to clashes with police and arrests, including female candidates. Allegations surfaced of missing Form 45s in some constituencies. PTI asserted victory in over 180 seats based on Form 45 data, surpassing a two-thirds majority. The Jamaat-e-Islami winner from the Sindh provincial assembly, Nayeemur Rahman, alleged that the PTI candidate was the true winner, accusing the Election Commission of unlawfully allocating seats to them to maintain silence. Consequently, he relinquished his seat. Jamaat-e-Islami and PTI made similar claims, particularly in Sindh, where they anticipated a strong performance. However, PPP emerged on top, followed by MQM, despite being perceived as an unlikely contender. PTI and Jamaat-e-Islami alleged that the establishment orchestrated MQM’s involvement to weaken them, allowing the PPP to regain dominance. In the Sindh assembly, PPP secured 84 seats, MQM 24, PTI 14, and Jamaat-e-Islami 2, as per the final tally. The rigging claims became stronger when Liaquat Ali Chatta, the chief election commissioner of Rawalpindi, a city very near the capital Islamad and known for hosting its almighty military headquarters, resigned from his position, saying, “All PTI-affiliated candidates winning elections by up to 70,000 margins were made to lose through massive rigging under his watch. He said, “I am taking responsibility for all wrongdoing and telling you that the chief election commissioner and chief justice are completely involved in this.” “I should be punished for the injustice I have done, and others who were involved in this injustice should also be punished,” he told reporters. The bureaucrat said there was “pressure” on him to the extent that he contemplated suicide but then resolved to present matters before the public and said, “It is my request to the entire bureaucracy to not do anything wrong for all these politicians.” He was arrested soon after. The election commission denied all the allegations.

Despite the tumultuous events surrounding the elections, PTI-backed independent candidates emerged as the frontrunners in the final tally, securing the highest number of seats in the National Assembly. PTI clinched 93 seats, followed by PML-N with 75 seats, PPP with 54 seats, and MQM with 17 seats. Smaller parties and independent candidates were successful in winning the remaining 26 seats. The outcome left many pondering the intentions of the “deep state”—if their purported aim was to thwart Imran Khan’s PTI and rig the election, why grant them the largest share of seats? Some speculated that it might have been a strategic miscalculation on their part, failing to anticipate the overwhelming support for Imran Khan among the electorate. However, this might be a completely different story: ‘a meticulously orchestrated, pre-planned strategy’. Despite PTI’s lead over the other major parties, they fell short of securing enough seats to form a government independently. Consequently, Imran Khan found himself compelled to seek alliances with other political entities to attain a governing majority. However, given the adversarial nature of the campaign against the two major parties, allying with them proved untenable. Thus, PTI’s pathway to government hinged on rallying support from smaller parties and independent candidates who had secured seats in the National Assembly.

Whoever had a minimal idea about Pakistani politics knew that the PTI would not be able to bring the smaller parties or the independents to their side. There are two main reasons among many.
* Going with PTI meant going against the establishment. For any small party or independent candidate, it would be like suicide. They would never be able to tolerate the pressure and repression.
* Smaller parties imposed numerous conditions for joining coalitions, which PTI would struggle to meet. Unlike PML-N and PPP, PTI couldn’t offer lucrative deals. Even during Imran’s ousting in April 2022, some PTI MPs defected to the opposition.
Despite securing the maximum number of seats in the official results, PTI faced insurmountable challenges in forming a government due to the need for an additional 41 MPs and the absence of their party affiliation. Conversely, Sharif and Bhutto’s families, with their established alliances and ample resources, were better positioned to rally support for a coalition government. Asif Ali Zardari’s reputation for adept negotiation further bolstered their prospects. While PTI’s seat count appeared impressive, the broader political landscape favored their rivals, marking a significant setback for Imran’s party.
Let’s clarify a little more. The deep state executed a brilliant strategy, opting not to grant a single majority to the Muslim League. Instead, they intentionally compelled them to form a coalition of the Sharifs with the PPP for two key reasons.
* Firstly, coalition governments are inherently weak and easily toppled, especially with the PTI winning nearly a hundred seats. This fragility keeps the government in constant fear of the establishment’s influence, ensuring compliance with the deep state. Any deviation can be swiftly punished, granting the deep state significant leverage.
* Secondly, if the goal was to dismantle Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf as a party, allowing only Nawaz’s Muslim League to assume power would have required the PPP to align with the PTI’s opposition, making it harder to target the PTI. Instead, by leaving PTI as the lone opposition, the establishment isolated them, leaving them susceptible to potential repression.

Following the anticipated trend, the government formation unfolded, with the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan People’s Party forging a coalition after prolonged negotiations. However, the process faced hurdles as the Election Commission ruled the Sunni Ittihad Council, PTI’s chosen affiliation for reserved seats, ineligible due to legal issues. This setback highlighted the complexities of navigating Pakistan’s political landscape. In the Prime Minister election, Shahbaz Sharif of PML-N secured victory with 201 votes, supported by the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari, despite the PTI’s nominee receiving only 92 votes. This outcome marked a significant shift in power dynamics, with the PPP’s ascent to the presidency indicating notable influence in the political arena. Amidst the political maneuvering, PTI supporters grappled with conflicting emotions, clinging to hope while acknowledging the challenges ahead. As PTI took legal action challenging the election results in nearly 90 constituencies, uncertainty lingered regarding the party’s future trajectory, with the likelihood of substantial change appearing slim in the current landscape.

The author of this article is a researcher and political analyst specializing in South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Georgetown University, Qatar

References:

1. “Election Commission of Pakistan.” Archived from the original on January 6, 2024. Retrieved February 16, 2024.
2. “Former Pakistan PM Imran Khan barred from politics for 5 years.” Al Jazeera. August 8, 2023. Archived from the original on February 8, 2024. Retrieved February 10, 2024.
3. “Pakistan’s Imran Khan still barred from vote after conviction appeal fails -lawyer.” Reuters. December 21, 2023. Retrieved February 10, 2024.
4. Ellis-Petersen, Hannah; Baloch, Shah Meer. “Imran Khan claims victory in Pakistan poll but military might have final say.” The Observer. February 10, 2024. Archived from the original on February 10, 2024. Retrieved February 11, 2024.
5. Ellis-Petersen, Hannah; Baloch, Shah Meer. “Protests take place across Pakistan amid election vote-rigging allegations.” The Guardian. February 11, 2024. Archived from the original on February 11, 2024. Retrieved February 11, 2024.
6. Grim, Ryan. “Historic Turnout in Pakistan Is Swamping the Military’s Effort to Rig the Election.” The Intercept. February 9, 2024. Archived from the original on February 9, 2024. Retrieved February 10, 2024.
7. Hussain, Abid. “’Election engineering’: Is Pakistan’s February vote already rigged?” Al Jazeera. Archived from the original on January 15, 2024. Retrieved February 13, 2024.
8. “The ‘generals’ elections’ in Pakistan that turned against the military.” France 24. February 9, 2024. Archived from the original on February 10, 2024. Retrieved February 13, 2024.
9. “What the international media had to say about the elections that were everything but predictable.” dawn.com. February 11, 2024. Archived from the original on February 15, 2024. Retrieved February 16, 2024.
10. “PTI’s Gohar Khan says party won 180 NA seats in Feb 8 polls.” dawn.com. February 18, 2024. Archived from the original on March 3, 2024. Retrieved March 3, 2024.
11. “Pakistan’s former premier Sharif and allies agree to form a coalition.” Associated Press. February 14, 2024. Archived from the original on February 14, 2024. Retrieved February 14, 2024.
12. “Shehbaz prevails in race for PM House.” Dawn. February 14, 2024. Archived from the original on February 14, 2024. Retrieved February 14, 2024.
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ishfak Farhan Siyam
The author is a researcher and analyst specializing in South Asian and Middle Eastern studies, Georgetown University, Qatar
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