THE DELAYS was unusual, even by the standards of Pakistan’s messy politics. On February 11, almost three days after a legal deadline, the country’s electoral commission finally released provisional results from the general elections held on February 8. No party achieved a majority, but the vote nonetheless produced a clear winner: Imran Khan, the imprisoned former prime minister whose party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was the subject of a de facto ban.
Voters ignored suggestions to avoid Mr Khan and still voted for Mr Khan’s candidates. Members of PTI, running as independents, won 92 of the 264 parliamentary seats. Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif, Mr. Khan’s main rival and three-time former prime minister, was widely expected. It comes second with 75 seats.
Although it won the largest number of seats, the PTI will not be able to form a government, having excluded any coalition with the other parties. Instead, Mr. Sharif claimed power. Shehbaz Sharif, his younger brother and president of PML-N, began negotiations with the Pakistan People’s Party, which won 54 seats, and several other smaller parties to form a national unity government. He appears to be supported in his efforts by the army chief, who praised the conduct of “free and unhindered” elections. PML-N also contacted winning candidates loyal to Mr Khan to switch sides. At least one has already jumped.
Mr Khan’s party says it has evidence that it would have won a majority of seats if the election had not been rigged by its rivals and the army. Mr Sharif’s party denies the allegations. “How can they claim rigging when they are the most important party in the National Assembly? said Khawaja Asif, a PML-N leader in Sialkot. However, the signs of falsification are numerous. The Election Commission, which was instrumental in obstructing Mr. Khan and the PTI in the run-up to the election, blamed the several-day delay in publishing the results on unspecified “Internet problems.” Over the weekend, he first banned returning officers from certifying results in several precincts and ordered a repeat of voting at dozens of polling stations after reports of ballots being snatched and destroyed (he then did an about-face, in line with his pre-election position). In at least 24 constituencies, 13 of which were won by PML-Nthe number of rejected ballots was greater than the margin of victory, opening the door to legal challenges.
The dubious electoral process was preceded by a systematic campaign, orchestrated by the army, against Mr. Khan and the PTI. He was stripped of his election symbol, a cricket bat, effectively dissolving the party. The Supreme Court sealed the deal by rejecting a successful challenge in a lower court. A lot PTI leaders were imprisoned or disqualified. Those running as independents were unable to campaign openly. A week before the elections, Mr. Khan, already incarcerated on another charge, was sentenced to three long prison terms in quick succession for corruption, disclosure of state secrets and illegal marriage. On Election Day, the outage of mobile phone and data networks hampered voters’ ability to find and access polling stations.
The result is a rebuke to the Pakistani military, which has effectively ruled the country through a loyal interim government in recent months and which has done everything in its power to force Mr. Khan and the PTI in political uselessness. This could eventually be a turning point in the generals’ ability to influence Pakistani politics. However, the immediate consequence will be a prolonged period of political instability, as the lack of a clear majority for any party, combined with credible allegations of widespread manipulation, will make it difficult for any government, once formed, to enjoy legitimacy.
In some cases, blatant rigging could be overturned by legal challenges, allowing PTI to get closer to PML-N before Parliament meets no later than February 29. Yet the PTI will probably remain confined to the opposition benches. Mr Sharif appears ready to build a coalition similar to the one that governed the country for 16 months after Mr Khan was ousted in a vote of no confidence in April 2022. Pakistanis voted for a change in the old way of doing politics. It looks like they’ll probably get the same thing. ■