A stunning election plunges Pakistan further into chaos

In a political landscape fraught with uncertainty, Pakistanis are now grappling with an outcome that will plunge the nation deeper into turmoil

February 09, 2024
On 28th January, 2024, female supporters of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rejoice at an election campaign rally in Rawalpindi. (Credit: © Raja Imran Bahadar/Pacific Press via ZUMA Press Wire)
On 28th January, 2024, female supporters of the unsuccessful Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rejoice at an election campaign rally. (Credit: © Raja Imran Bahadar/Pacific Press via ZUMA Press Wire)

The odds were stacked firmly against them, but independent candidates aligned with the Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI), the party of the embattled former premier Imran Khan, have emerged from the country’s election apparently with the highest number of seats, following a remarkable display of popular defiance. Despite formidable hurdles posed by a relentless crackdown on Khan’s party over the past year, including the incarceration of its charismatic founder, the PTI’s results defied expectations and underscored the resilience of its grassroots support base—and the magnetism of Khan.

The denial of a fair contest for Khan, a towering figure in both the realms of cricket and politics who was just days ago handed a hefty prison sentence for charges relating to corruption and leaking state secrets, seemed to spell doom for his party. Yet his party’s candidates harnessed the anger of disenfranchised voters, leveraging social media platforms to circumvent censorship and disseminate their message of rebellion against the military establishment. Voters were exposed to catchy songs and AI-generated speeches of Khan. The ban on news related to Khan’s trial served only to galvanise his supporters, who viewed his imprisonment as a catalyst for greater mobilisation and determination.

On the electoral battleground in Punjab, the epicentre of the political contest, this unmistakable swell of pro-Khan sentiment was clear. The authorities tried to enforce silence among Khan’s supporters, but a palpable undercurrent of defiance pulsed through the streets, as disillusioned citizens seized the opportunity to voice their discontent at the ballot box. The PTI’s unorthodox electoral symbols, ranging from an aubergine to a peacock, served as emblems of resistance. “Every time we think of Imran Khan sitting in that prison, our blood boils and we become more determined than ever to vote for him,” one young man in the industrial city of Gujranwala told me. “The head and limbs have been chopped off, but the heart still beats,” said another stealth voter. Scores of others echoed these sentiments.

The PTI’s apparent triumph underscores the faltering grip of traditional power brokers on Pakistan’s political landscape

But the PTI’s apparent success is not merely a testament to the resilience of its supporters; it also underscores the faltering grip of traditional power brokers on Pakistan’s political landscape. The stark divergence between popular sentiment and elite expectations lays bare the growing disconnect between entrenched power structures and the aspirations of ordinary Pakistanis.

As is customary after every election in Pakistan, allegations of widespread vote rigging reverberate across the political landscape, casting doubt over the legitimacy of the electoral process. Amid accusations of tampering and manipulation, candidates from various parties, including the PTI, decry the abrupt shifts in early vote counts that now favour their opponents. After midnight on election day, the key election body tasked with announcing results fell conspicuously silent, which has only fuelled suspicions of foul play, as the nation awaits official confirmation of the vote outcome.

In a country facing a myriad of crises, ranging from economic instability and environmental degradation to unchecked population growth, political uncertainty looms large in the aftermath of the election. If he is declared the official victor, Imran Khan’s tenuous relationship with the formidable military establishment will complicate efforts to form a stable government. Meanwhile, the reluctance of rival parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League (PML, led by Nawaz Sharif) and the Pakistan People’s Party (led by Bilawal Bhutto) to forge alliances further destabilises the precarious political landscape, leaving millions grappling with the harsh realities of soaring inflation and a crippling cost-of-living crisis. The day after the vote, Sharif made a “victory speech” flanked by his family members, claiming his was the single largest party after elections, and announcing he would seek to form a coalition. If he came to power, Pakistan could see a continuation of nepotistic politics, if his family members were again appointed to key government positions. In London, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a former Sharif ally and former prime minister of Pakistan who is now estranged from the PML, tells me: “This is a very controversial election result. He should not form government without moral authority. Such a ‘victory’ does not suit him.”

In the wild, hypothetical scenario that Imran Khan is released from incarceration, it would also be important to reflect on his trajectory. His previous tenure was marked by allegations of authoritarianism, incompetence and vindictiveness. If Khan was high-handed with a razor-thin majority, what kind of leader would he be with an overwhelming majority? While the PTI’s electoral triumph would no doubt signal a seismic shift in the balance of power, it remains uncertain whether a liberated Imran Khan would usher in a new era of democratic governance or perpetuate the autocratic tendencies that marred his previous administration. At this moment, the contours of Pakistan’s political future are obscured by ambiguity. 

Still, even in the doom and gloom, the incredible political engagement of ordinary Pakistanis in this election stands out. “No matter how jaded we feel, I just want to add that my 91 year old grandmother voted today,” tweeted one woman, Maria Amir. “She car-pooled with her neighbours to go to her station. She has seen this country born & has been witness to all its trials & triumphs & somehow she still keeps hoping.”