Comprehending Pakistan’s Election Outcomes

Pakistan, the fifth most populous nation in the world, held a highly anticipated general election on February 8. This year’s vote occurred as the nation is confronting a significant economic crisis and is still addressing the devastating aftermath of floods that hit the nation hard in 2022 and 2023.

The election also followed the ousting of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2022, which resulted in a political crisis and the takeover of a caretaker government. Just weeks before the election, Khan was sentenced to 10 years in prison; however, this did not deter the former prime minister’s supporters from appearing at the polls. Election results released Sunday revealed that independent candidates supported by Khan won the most seats of any party in the election.

It’s too soon to tell, however, whether Khan’s party will be able to form a coalition government. In order to become Prime Minister, a candidate must win a simple majority of 169 seats in the National Assembly; independent candidates backed by Khan won 93 seats, according to the BBC.

To gain a better understanding of Pakistan’s election results, we asked SIS Distinguished Professor and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies Akbar Ahmed a few questions about the key issues surrounding this year’s election and what these results mean for the nation.

Pakistan is facing a series of crises. These crises are both internal and external. The economy is almost on the verge of imploding. Law and order has collapsed in certain districts. There’s a political crisis with parties at loggerheads; there is high tension between the very powerful army, the establishment, and politicians; and there are simultaneously problems on the border.
You also have a crisis with Afghanistan, where the dreaded TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan), who are extremely violent, have reemerged. They’ve started blowing up government offices and targeting individuals. In fact, just the day before the elections, they killed several people in Balochistan, which is the largest province of Pakistan.
And then, to top it all—as if this wasn’t enough—Iran, which is focused on its western border, and involved with Iraq and Syria, and so on, decided to suddenly turn east and hurl missiles into Pakistan. Pakistan responded swiftly and shot back, and there was the possibility of an escalating crisis. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and both Iran and Pakistan returned to normal relations.
So, the question is, why should there be elections in the middle of all this? I would say that it is the impulse of the Pakistani people—whatever the crisis, whatever the problems—the determination to have elections, and therefore, have a representative voice in how they are governed. I would say the belief in democracy is in the DNA of Pakistanis, inherited from the vision of Mr. M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and the quintessential democrat.
Having said that, the establishment—that is, the military and the caretaker government, which is running Pakistan—decided to remove Imran Khan’s government and jail him. And not only did they jail Imran Khan, the most popular leader in Pakistan, but they threw everything and the kitchen sink at him. He had over 100 cases against him.
So, what do the current politics reflect? It reflects what I call the Mandela syndrome—you take a political prisoner, you put him in jail, and depending on his behavior, that person can emerge a larger-than-life figure. So, Imran went in as a political prisoner, but he has emerged as a Mandela figure now. So, despite every hurdle put in his path, he’s got almost 100 seats in the National Assembly, which makes his party the largest in this election.

The results mean an acute dilemma for those who thought they were engineering the results. There will have to be a coalition government. Even with Khan’s nearly 100 seats, he still is not able to form a government. The total number of members in the National Assembly is 336 seats—minus 70 that are reserved for women and non-Muslim candidates. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Muslim League party, got 75 seats. The third party, the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Benazir Bhutto, got 54. Now there is jockeying for a coalition and different mathematical combinations are being discussed. If Imran Khan who needs 169 seats, and he has about 100, teams up with Nawaz Sharif or with Bilawal Bhutto and the PPP, or he gathers more independents to form that number, he may be able to make a coalition government. This seems highly unlikely given the acrimony between the parties. All this means a lame duck government fearful of the coalition dissolving and the government toppling.
There was a similar scenario in 2018: when Imran stood for election, he won a good amount of seats but not enough to form a government. He had to make alliances in order to became the Prime Minister, but he couldn’t survive. His political opponents were pulling the rug from under his feet. So, a coalition government is always a weak government, and that’s what it means for Pakistan.
At the same time, Pakistan does need reform and leadership. It has got to deal with its serious economic problems and urgent law and order problems. Pakistan needs resolute, wise, and clear leadership.

Good question, and there is a simple answer: the military has the guns. If you recall the famous response of Stalin during the Second World War, where it was discussed whether the Pope would join the Allies or join Stalin, and Stalin’s answer was, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” So, the military has the soldiers and the weapons, and in a crisis, it can always march in and throw out the government and say, “Alright, we declare martial law.” It’s important to remember that Pakistan has spent half its life under martial law.
It’s also not as simple as it sounds, because, for the first time in the last few years, Imran Khan led a movement that was at first uneasy with the army followed by a head-on confrontation. So, for the first time, the powerful army of Pakistan was confronted with criticism and widespread disenchantment. That put the army and the government in a very awkward position because they had to deal with Khan and his populist policies. One way or the other, they have to deal with him. Khan has charisma, and his being in jail has made his reputation grow stronger and stronger. He has the Mandela syndrome I mentioned, so the longer he is imprisoned, the stronger his reputation grows.
Looking at it from Washington, in the United States, the Republicans invariably favor strongman rule in Pakistan, so they would favor a strong general who would then do their bidding. The Democrats, by and large, support democracy in Pakistan. So, you’ve also got the American factor. There’s actually a very active Pakistani community, especially in the United States—almost a million, which is a very large number. In terms of presence in the media, the population is very active—they’re doing these videos and conferences, and they’re constantly producing rather sophisticated content. That, in turn, influences how American media sees what’s going on. That influences the congressmen and senators and so on. By and large, the overseas Pakistan community, especially in the US, is supportive of Imran Khan because they want a clean government. They want hope, prosperity, and the restoration of law and order for Pakistan, as well as something to stop corruption because the other parties are associated with corruption.

Pakistani politics is at a very, very interesting stage. It is going to be a rocky ride, it’s going to be full of turbulence, full of surprises, and full of excitement. Above all, for me, I’m hopeful. It’s established that the people of Pakistan, with all the challenges, the violence, the confusion, and the corruption—they’re determined to hold elections and hopefully keep the cart on the road of democracy.

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