Pakistan: The Only Certainty After a Rigged Election Is Chaos


About two weeks after one of the most tainted elections in the Pakistan’s checkered parliamentary history, a coalition government is in sight. But the only certainty that has emerged is instability and political chaos. And it may only get worse.

An aphorism goes that the Pakistan army has never won a war and never lost an election. The army might not have lost this one either but appears to have botched the manipulation.

The brass had intended and plotted for former Prime Minister Imran Khan to be routed at the polls, thus paving the way for purging him out of the political system. It envisaged a new dispensation along the so-called Bangladesh model of a diarchal controlled democracy in which the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) alone, or in a coalition with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and others, would form a stable government. But the election results stunned everyone, including the army’s planners and conventional political prognosticators.

Independent candidates backed by Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party, swept the polls for the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP) provincial legislature and won a plurality of seats in the National Assembly.

In the run up to the elections, the military establishment had thrown everything but the kitchen sink at its former protégé Khan to keep him from returning to power. The PTI, with its electoral machinery already depleted after the army induced defections and break-away factions, was kept from running as a party by denying it an election symbol. Khan, who has already been in jail, was slapped with egregious sentences, including a grotesque one for an unlawful marriage under Islamic conventions, just days before the polls. The party’s election campaign was run by its third and fourth-tier leadership, comprising mostly of lawyers.

The PTI made effective use of the new media platforms like TikTok to run campaign ads and held virtual rallies on Twitter and Facebook. In a first for Pakistan, the party used artificial intelligence to generate Khan’s speeches by simulating his voice calling for vote.

The PTI cadres deployed WhatsApp and other electronic modalities in their get-out-the-vote efforts. The exercise was largely dismissed by the pundits and political opponents as mere social media hype. Not leaving anything to chance, the caretaker government had shut the mobile phone system and internet services on the polling day.

But as the preliminary results started coming in, the PTI-backed independents seemed unstoppable. While assorted television and news outlets were making projections, the official provisional results were nowhere to be found. This was seen as the army’s old tactic of tinkering with the election results when it fails to achieve the desired outcome through pre-poll rigging.

The PTI as well as the Pashtun and Baloch nationalist parties cried foul. They alleged gross discrepancies between the vote count submitted by the presiding officers at the polling stations and the consolidated results released by the returning officers at the constituency level. But it all seemed like an amateur hour at the establishment’s rigging headquarters, which was playing catch-up to stymie the PTI’s outright victory. Khan, however, declared triumph – in a speech generated by A.I. A visibly crestfallen Nawaz Sharif, who was seeking a fourth stint as the PM, also a made a subdued speech proclaiming success.

The PTI’s remarkable bounce back was a culmination of Khan’s relentless assault on his opponents since his ouster from power in April 2022 through a no-confidence move, which also had a nod from the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Qamar Javed Bajwa. Khan’s dogged offensive targeted both Bajwa and his successor, General Asim Munir along the way. When the PTI chief was eventually arrested, his party men even rioted against military installations for which both the leader and cadres are facing charges. But an undeterred Khan didn’t back down from railing against General Munir. He also trained his guns on the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government comprising of the PMLN and the PPP that had replaced him and scored several bye-election victories against them.

Khan is a textbook demagogue who thrived in turmoil and successfully channeled the existing dislike for traditional politics and widespread resentment against the army, to mobilise his cult-like following, especially among the young voters that make the bulk of Pakistan’s electorate. The results, however, also suggest pockets of support for Khan in the state machinery, including the army, which might have been a hurdle in the establishment’s plan to completely steamroll the PTI.

In an election that was essentially fought along the pro and anti-Imran Khan line, the traditional political forces largely played catch up with him. The PMLN, despite securing a majority in its traditional bastion Punjab’s provincial legislature, performed dismally at the national level.

Nawaz Sharif, who had returned from a self-exile in London last October, to lead his party’s campaign, could not lift its sagging fortunes. He had tried to put himself between the electorate and the Shehbaz Sharif-led PDM government’s abysmal performance, during which the inflation had risen to 35% and Pakistan narrowly dodged the economic default bullet. On the campaign trail, Sharif, ostensibly under pressure from his own brother and other partymen, opted to shelve his previous anti-establishment plank and avoided questioning the army’s meddling in politics.

The combined weight of PDM/PMLN’s 16-month incumbency, reliance on 1990s-style patronage politics, and abandoning a principled position vis-à-vis the army, was too much even for Sharif to pull. Pashtun and Baloch nationalist forces, which had entered the field divided into several parties and groups, also faced the brunt of rigging, especially in Balochistan and the former tribal districts of KP, where assorted pro-army candidates got the results fixed in their favour.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which claims to represent the Urdu-speaking population of urban Sindh, appears to have benefitted from the establishment trying to offset Khan’s lead in Punjab and KP, and got awarded a handful of seats. The only traditional party that escaped rather unscathed was the former president Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto’s PPP. The PPP has perfected the art of positioning itself as a Sindhi nationalist party in its home province while posturing as the great federalist force at the center. It was able to retain a not only a comfortable majority in Sindh province, but also made inroads in Balochistan by enlisting several army-allied tribal politicians. The PPP was perhaps the only party that actually celebrated Yaum-e-Tashakkur or a thanksgiving day.

With all said and done, at the national level, the PTI won 93 seats, the PML-N 75, the PPP 54, followed by the MQM at 17 seats. Several ethno-nationalist and religious parties are in single digits. It is effectively a hung parliament with no party in a position to form the government on its own, let alone the PTI with Khan in no mood to negotiate with the others. The PTI-backed independent candidates are further hamstrung by the stipulation that unless they join a formal party that has presence in the national assembly, they would be deprived of the seats reserved for the women and minorities.

The PMLN and the PPP played hot potato with the government formation, knowing full well that this dispensation won’t exactly be a bed of roses. Unwilling to sit atop a shaky government at the twilight of his political career, Sharif had pulled himself out of the race for the high office. He nominated Shehbaz Sharif, a known toady of the army, for the slot. The PPP, in a better position than ever to exact its pound of flesh, played hard to catch for a bit. But finally the formation of a coalition government was announced with Shehbaz Sharif as the PM, in exchange for Asif Zardari becoming the president and assorted elected and appointed offices as well as the Balochistan government likely going to the PPP.

The new setup is essentially the second edition of the PDM coalition that ousted Khan. The arrangement was inevitable. Neither the two main parties in the coalition nor the General Munir who is detested by Khan had any great choices. They had set out to purge Khan from the polity but ended up with the man bagging one-third of the seats in the house. And that along with the multiple crises that Pakistan is already facing, makes the things more uncertain.

A hotchpotch government coming into office, as the result of an extremely shady election, is hardly the popular or consensus dispensation needed to tackle Pakistan’s myriad problems including a tanking economy and domestic terrorism. For his part, Khan, being the quintessential demagogue, cannot function in an atmosphere of political harmony and tolerance.

With one provincial government under his belt and a sizeable presence in the National Assembly, Khan is unlikely to back down. General Munir and the PDM 2.0 would hold each other in an ever-tighter embrace, so long as the spectre of Imran Khan looms. The army, however, controls many levers of power and Khan’s legal travails are by no means over. How the junta grapples with a resurgent Khan would be the main event and a measly coalition government merely a sideshow. Political chaos and uncertainty would be the name of the game.


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