Even as one circus of the absurd has ended in Pakistan, another has begun. The farcical nature of the electoral exercise in the country has produced an even more farcical outcome. Even as Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-backed independent candidates continue to maintain their lead on the victory board, Nawaz Sharif has gone ahead and given a victory speech. Arguing that the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) has emerged as the largest party in the country, he was in a congratulatory mood even as he underlined that there was a need for all political parties to come together and work on pulling Pakistan out of crisis.
A Rude Awakening For The Army?
It’s a strange situation where victory has been declared by a party that was expected to win easily with the help of the Pakistani Army but is trailing behind a band of independents backed by an out-of-favour party. No wonder Pakistan’s voters have finally decided to give the mighty army a taste of its own medicine. Even by Pakistan’s abysmal standards, this has been one of the country’s worst ‘managed’ elections. Even two days later, there is hardly any clarity on what is going to be the trajectory going forward. But battle lines are firming up. Making it clear that “now is the time to allow democracy to flourish”, the PTI is pushing back by saying that “power-wielders must learn to respect people’s choice” while warning that any effort to “derail the decision” would have “deadly consequences”. And Imran Khan himself, with help from AI, has come out and congratulated his party workers “for winning the 2024 election” and despite a crackdown on his party.
There may be a lack of clarity about the victors, but the main loser in this farce is quite clear. Like Pakistan, the days of its army do not seem very promising at the moment. The election results indicate that the army’s hold on the country is weakening. There is a strong possibility that the army may use any trick to bend the results as per its wish. It is another matter that ignoring public sentiments will increase the risks for the army. The election trends so far are a big blow to the army as well as the traditional established political parties of Pakistan. It is not hidden from anyone that the real command of Pakistan has always been in the hands of the army. From time to time, the army has been choosing political pawns for its own benefit. In the last polls, it stood behind Imran Khan, leading to Khan’s coronation. Then, when there was a clash with Imran, the army brought in his opposition parties on one platform and formed his coalition government. Pakistan Army Chief General Asim Munir’s rift with Imran Khan led to his ensuring that Imran and his party do not reach the threshold of power under any circumstances. The election trends, however, are showing the opposite. Whichever way you look at it, this is a momentous humiliation for the army as well as other political parties. The situation can be gauged from the fact that Nawaz Sharif, who was considered a strong contender for the post of Prime Minister, lost the election from one constituency and questions were raised about his victory from the other seat.
A Possible New Dawn In Pakistani Politics
The Pakistani military establishment did everything possible to discredit Imran Khan. He was implicated in many cases. Punishment was also meted out in many cases. He became ineligible to contest elections. His party’s election symbol, the ‘cricket bat’, was confiscated. This meant that the PTI was no longer in a position to field official candidates in the elections. All the big leaders of Imran’s party left. And the activities of those who remained were limited under the army’s pressure. Even in such adverse circumstances, if independent candidates supported by the PTI are winning in such huge numbers, then it is a big blow to the army and other players. This is not only a moral victory for Imran Khan, but it may also herald a new dawn in Pakistani politics. This shows that the people of Pakistan are disappointed with the political interference of the army and the attitude of traditional political parties. There is also an ‘India influence’ of a different kind, where India’s recent progress is seen as linked to Indians pushing back against dynastic politics and corruption.
Pakistan is struggling on multiple fronts. The economy is in the doldrums. Social and regional cohesion is at an all-time low. Regional isolation is growing, with the Taliban government in Afghanistan disregarding the demands of Islamabad with impunity. Iran, too, carried out air attacks a few days ago, due to which Pakistan had to face great embarrassment. There is wider disillusionment with the body politic and the established governance structure under the protection of the army in Pakistan, which is reflected in the latest election results. They seem to be a warning bell for the army and traditional political parties, that the nation’s public is no longer in the mood to tolerate their shenanigans.
The electoral process and now this muddled outcome will hardly generate confidence in the ability of Pakistani policymakers to get their act together. The US State Department has joined “credible international and local election observers in their assessment that these elections included undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly”. As the next phase of cobbling a government together begins, with horse trading as well as pressures and counter-pressures, things are likely to get much worse before they become better for a nation desperately seeking some light at the end of a long tunnel.
(Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London. His most recent books include ‘India and the Gulf: Theoretical Perspectives and Policy Shifts’ (Cambridge University Press) and ‘Politics and Geopolitics: Decoding India’s Neighbourhood Challenge’ (Rupa))
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.
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