A polling official confirms a voter's identity during the Pakistani general elections in July 2018. Photo: Commonwealth Secretariat on Flickr

Pakistan’s stalemated election showed that its ruling class is unable to contain the cascading social crisis in the country, but a genuine alternative is lacking, argues John Clarke

The strong support that was shown for ousted and imprisoned former prime minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the country’s 8 February election has created a major political upset. It had been assumed that the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party (PMLN), headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, would win easily but this proved to be a severe miscalculation.

Though Sharif enjoyed the support of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, independent candidates connected to the PTI took 93 seats to the PMLN’s 75, with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in third place with 54 seats. Since no party won the 169 seats needed to comprise a majority in parliament, it remained unclear who would be in a position to form the next government.

Outpouring of anger

Khan having been in prison since August, an AI generated version of the PTI leader was used to urge supporters to ‘now show the strength of protecting your vote’. Sharif, for his part, responded to his party’s dismal share of the vote by doggedly insisting that it had actually obtained the largest share of support.

After the electoral results came in, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Syed Asim Muni rather ominously suggested that the ‘nation needs stable hands and a healing touch to move on from the politics of anarchy and polarization.’ Leaving little doubt that a political alliance that excluded Khan was to his liking, the general added that ‘Pakistan’s diverse polity and pluralism will be well-represented by a unified government of all democratic forces imbibed with national purpose.’

The election had unfolded amid widespread concerns that it would not be conducted fairly. On February 9, violent ‘protests had already broken out on Friday over allegations of vote rigging and the slow vote count, amid warnings from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that the “lack of transparency’ surrounding the delay in announcing the election results was “deeply concerning”.’

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, local PTI affiliated candidate Syed Fareen told CNN that they were having a peaceful demonstration when the police fired on the protesters, killing two workers and injuring at least 24. It was widely believed that the country’s caretaker government and military were working to ‘suppress Khan and his supporters’.

In this charged situation, with the vote having already been delayed for months, ‘PTI voters came out in droves to telegraph a message of defiance, that they weren’t going to let the military dictate the outcome of an election that it badly wanted them to lose.’

Candidates supporting the PTI were forced by a court ruling to run as independents and it is expected that the effort to form a government that can prevent Khan from taking power will include attempts to convince some elected representatives who supported him to switch sides. It is clear that Sharif is working to pull together a coalition with the PPP but it has been suggested that this would result in a ‘weak and unstable coalition’ and a ‘prolonged period of political instability.’

It must be understood that the role of the military in Pakistan’s political life is considerable and there have been long periods during which civilian government has been suppressed. In this situation, ‘all eyes are on the powerful generals who have long been seen as the ultimate arbiters of politics in this country.’ Even in the very likely event that the PTI is successfully shut out from governing, the ‘key question now is how the establishment will respond to their unprecedented failure to politically sideline the party.’

That failure has certainly added greatly to Pakistan’s political instability. ‘After Khan ran afoul of the military two years ago, Pakistani officials all but dismantled his party. Many of its leaders were arrested — including Khan, who has been convicted in three separate cases so far — and the party’s offices were raided the week of the election.’

Yet a problem that was supposed to be contained has now rebounded spectacularly. ‘For many Khan supporters, their vote was as much about sending an anti-establishment message as it was about supporting the jailed former premier.’ A deep sense of grievance against the intrusive military presence and the very major social and economic problems facing the country has been expressed in the powerful wave of support for Khan.

It would be a mistake to imagine, however, that Khan and his party represent a political direction that offers any real solutions for the great mass of people in Pakistan. The former cricket star’s differences with the military dominated establishment aren’t of any fundamental nature, however bitterly they have played out. Khan hasn’t advanced any radical alternatives but his shallow ‘populist insurgency’ has nonetheless generated hopes that the grip of a stultifying and corrupt power structure might be broken.

While distinctly privileged ‘social layers dominated the PTI’s parliamentary echelons and shaped its policy measures while in power,’ it is also strikingly clear that ‘Khan has also found vast reserves of popularity among Pakistan’s lower classes and young people under the age of thirty, who constitute over 60 percent of the country’s population.’

Deep grievances

It is easy to appreciate the sources of the desperation and anger that Khan has been able to draw on and that were so starkly revealed in the recent electoral upset. ‘The Pakistani state owes more than $120 billion in foreign debt and even more in domestic debt. It is spending more than two-thirds of state revenue (obtained mostly through regressive, indirect taxation) on servicing the debt burden and military expenditures.’

At the same time, inflation ‘is hovering at 30 percent, close to 40 percent of people live below the poverty line.’ Pakistan was also devastated by enormous floods in 2022 that ‘displaced eight million people and cost the country $30bn in damage. The loss of cotton crops ravaged the country’s textile industry, a key source of exports.’ The impact of these floods continues to affect the lives of people in Pakistan and the means to recover and rebuild properly are lacking.

Last year, on the very edge of defaulting on its debts, Pakistan ‘secured a $3 billion loan from the IMF – its 23rd fund programme since 1958. However, the lending package came with strict conditions and unpopular reforms.’ New taxes were imposed on the power sector and the government was forced ‘to lower utility subsidies, which led to sharp hikes in electricity prices, hitting poorer households particularly hard.’

The mass of people in Pakistan are confronting a dire and rapidly deteriorating economic situation. They face the effects of crushing international debt and the full impact of climate change. Their lives are dominated by a corrupt and fractious political order that operates under the watchful eye of a powerful and aggressive military establishment.

It is this bitter reality that created an opening for the illusion of a meaningful alternative that Imran Khan puts forward. However, very real and deep grievances found their expression in the recent election that won’t be easy to contain. The shutting out of Khan and the PTI will only highlight the corrupt and anti-democratic nature of the ruling interests.

If Nawaz Sharif is able to form a government, with the approval of the generals, it will operate as a discredited institution from the outset. The explosive anger that came to a head during the election has much deeper causes than the infighting over competing interests that the political power brokers engage in, but their shameless readiness to thwart the democratic process adds insult to injury. Pakistan’s election upset and the clumsy effort to resolve the political problems it has generated point to continuing social conflict in the days to come.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.