Imran Khan has won the general elections in Pakistan. However, he will not be able to form a government or become Prime Minister. Even though he did not contest the elections and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), was denied its election symbol on the ballot paper, his party, contesting as ‘Independents’, has emerged as the largest group in Parliament. It has an overwhelming majority in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and is a very close second in the largest province, Punjab. Moreover, leaders of the PTI are claiming that dozens of seats have been stolen from them and they would have won an absolute majority in Parliament and the Punjab as well. They intend to challenge these results in court over the next few days, which may see their tally rise.
This is a phenomenal victory for Pakistan’s former Prime Minister who has been in jail for almost a year, has had no access to the electorate and has not participated in electioneering (his name cannot even be mentioned on television). A few days before the election, he was given three prison terms after being found guilty on charges which include corruption, getting married illegally and revealing state secrets. He has also been barred from running for public office for 10 years and has over 170 other cases against him.
The plan that failed
This was certainly not the intention nor the plan. The powers that be — what is called the ‘Establishment’ in Pakistan — largely the military and those who subscribe to its bidding, had worked out a very different scenario. From around November 2021, Mr. Khan and the military had a major and public falling out. Ironically, it was the military establishment that had got rid of Nawaz Sharif in 2017 and began supporting Mr. Khan when he was not yet the Prime Minister. It is widely believed — and there is ample evidence to support the claim — that the military establishment enabled Mr. Khan’s victory in the 2018 elections, which made him Prime Minister.
For around three years, the military leadership and Mr. Khan were ‘on the same page’, a phrase which was repeated ad nauseum by both parties to show that the PTI government had the military’s backing and was in a comfortable and safe position to complete its five-year tenure. Disagreements between the then Chief of Army Staff (now retired General Bajwa) and Mr. Khan, regarding the tenure of the then and next Chief, opened up, causing huge fissures between the military and Mr. Khan. Eventually, through much manoeuvring and through a constitutional process which involved a vote of no confidence against him in April 2022 in Parliament, the PTI government was removed with all PTI elected representatives eventually resigning from Parliament. In its place, the Pakistan Democratic Movement, made up of over a dozen different parties, but led essentially by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML(N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Asif Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto, formed the government which lasted until the tenure of Parliament came to an end in August 2023.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was in exile in London because he was found guilty of corruption and was banned for life for holding public office or contesting elections, was able to return to Pakistan in October 2023. Remarkably, within a few weeks, the major cases against him were overturned and he was allowed to contest the elections, receiving a complete clean sheet, and resurrected anew.
With Mr. Khan in jail, his party the PTI losing its electoral symbol, PTI candidates hounded by un-named goons while campaigning, their hustings broken, and where many were attacked and picked up in the middle of the night, the plan was to ensure that Mr. Sharif’s PML(N) would win with a clear majority. He was considered a shoo-in, to become Prime Minister for the fourth time. There was complete consensus on this likelihood, yet the plan came badly undone.
The time for parleys
Despite allegations of widespread rigging — Pakistan’s leading journalist Hamid Mir said on television that the “PML[N] supporters are saying that they have received more votes on 9 February than on 8 February, the day of the elections” — and numerous other impediments to there being free and fair elections, the PTI has completely sabotaged the Establishment’s plan. A noticeably subdued Mr. Sharif, who was expected to make a victory speech on the day of the elections, appeared 24 hours later on television claiming victory and giving a call for a government which would include most parties, but not Imran Khan’s PTI.
At the moment, there is a great deal of bargaining, negotiation and horse-trading in order to create a government in Pakistan. The PML(N) is in discussions with other parties and hopes to lead the government, especially in partnership with the PPP. On the other hand, the PPP is apparently talking to the many independents hoping to lead the government. The PTI, which does not exist as a parliamentary party at the moment, is also claiming that it will form the government which, while unlikely, is not an impossibility. The incumbent President of Pakistan, who needs to invite the ‘largest party’ in the new Parliament to form the government, was elected from the PTI.
There are also major players on the scene who may have their own plans. Asif Zardari might be wanting to become President again if the Prime Minister is from the PML(N). Moreover, Nawaz Sharif’s daughter is being seen as the Chief Minister of Punjab, which would mean that Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, and not Nawaz Sharif, might become Prime Minister. Then there is Bilawal Bhutto, a new, confident, aspirant for prime ministership.
The Chief of Army Staff, General Asim Munir, has made his preferences clear, stating that “Pakistan’s diverse polity and pluralism will be well-represented by a unified government of all democratic forces imbibed with national purpose.” It is a clear message to all the participants.
The core contradiction
The core contradiction in Pakistan’s politics, as of now, is between Imran Khan and the military. Essentially, both parties are competing for the same political constituency — primarily, young supporters in the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
In every single public survey conducted in Pakistan over the last two years, Mr. Khan has, by a huge margin, always emerged as the most popular politician and leader in Pakistan. At the same time, in each of these surveys, almost every single time, the military emerges as the ‘most trusted’ or popular institution in Pakistan. Given the huge contradiction between the two, the election results from last week clearly show, at least for now, who has won this last contest.
S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist and heads the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi. The views expressed are personal