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South Asia

Democracy’s Odyssey in Pakistan: A Tale of Triumph, Tragedy and Turmoil

Pakistan needs dynamic young leaders who can bring renewed energy, innovation, and a contemporary perspective to address the evolving challenges.

Imran Khan had come roaring to Pakistan’s national politics: an outsider, a crusader, a beloved cricketer, and a national icon who brought pride to his country. However, as the political winds shifted, the darling of the Army and the once-blue-eyed boy was ousted from the government. A coalition of opposition leaders assumed control. The Army’s allegiance moved away from Khan, and the old political class of the Sharif and Bhutto family was reinstated.

Khan was suddenly out of favour. But he went to the people in his signature style – holding massive rallies, mobilising people, calling for fresh elections. Pakistan was in a storm – bearing the enduring scars of constant political trauma – since its independence and partition from India.

Angst against the army

While Khan continued pursuing his outsider politics and maintained a crusader’s image, in an unprecedented turn, his impassioned rallies morphed into a wave of public anger beyond his control. The Army’s posts were attacked by protesters and Barracks and Officers’ homes were burnt. This was an unparalleled challenge to the Army that no other political party had posed.

The stage seemed set for the demise of a politician who had successfully mobilised the masses. Following the familiar path of many politicians, Khan found himself on the opposite end of the Army. From being the darling of the Army, the former cricketer and the military became adversaries.

Orchestrated obstacles

All odds were stacked against Khan. He faces hundreds of legal cases. He was jailed. His marriage was annulled. His lieutenants were coerced. Most of his aides quit the party and condemned him. His foreign minister was humiliated. His party members are being prosecuted by military courts. The Election Commission stripped his party of its symbol and disqualified it from contesting elections. The courts conducted an unusually swift trial, convicting him within a month. This occurred in a country where a case can take years to find a hearing date in courts.

The entire leadership of Khan’s party is in jail. Independent candidates lacked the extensive organisational structure to hold rallies or organise campaign. The Internet and phone lines were shut down on the election day, and the election itself was deemed rigged by many observers. Like many past staged elections, the 2024 election was hoped to yield a result that favoured the Army. Despite these insurmountable odds, independent candidates backed by him won—97 seats out of 266 in the National Assembly—a victory no one in the establishment had anticipated.

Watch: Have the Pakistan Elections Made the Country’s Crisis Worse?

The return of Nawaz Sharif

As Khan’s predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, returned to Pakistan, all the cases initiated by Khan that had once led to Sharif’s condemnation were discarded. The path was strategically paved for the three-time Prime Minister to rein in Islamabad, with election arrangements predominantly favouring his candidacy. In spite of these manoeuvres, Sharif’s party secured only 75 seats. But Pakistan’s politics is full of surprises. As Pakistani journalist and author, Mohammad Hanif writes, “In Pakistan, the Prime Minister becomes a criminal, and a criminal becomes the Prime Minister.”

Result analysis

There are various perspectives to consider regarding this election result. One glaring aspect­, however, confronts the army and that is the resolute will of the people Independent candidates have secured more seats than organised and well-supported institutional political parties. This outcome reflects and reinforces that revolutions happen in the most adverse circumstances. This may not just be a political resentment against the establishment but a broader social movement that says, ‘We will not sit back and watch. We will use all that we have to fight back.’ There is little doubt that these election results could have been even more favourable to Khan if the polls had been conducted with neutrality and impartiality.

Intertwined relationship between politics and military

Pakistan’s influential military establishment must now be on the backfoot. It has historically governed the country through either military dictatorships or its favoured “blue-eyed politicians”. The military has wielded these political figures when convenient, only to later persecute and exile them when they ceased to serve their purpose. Yet the political class, including the Sharifs, the Bhuttos, and Khan, has allowed themselves to be manipulated as pawns of the Army. An obvious curiosity that frustrates young people with these politics is: Why do these politicians not unite against the Army? Why don’t they collaborate to build a Pakistan aligned with the ideals for which it was partitioned from India? If all of them genuinely believe in the cause of a democratic Pakistan, what has impeded their unity? The poignant words of the esteemed Urdu poet Faiz eloquently capture this shared anguish:

“This light, smeared and spotted, this night-bitten dawn
This isn’t surely the dawn we waited for so eagerly
This isn’t surely the dawn with whose desire cradled in our hearts”

The Dawn of Freedom, August 1947

Also read: Upcoming Elections in Pakistan Put Spotlight on the Youth

Pakistan’s many problems

Pakistan continues to grapple with the aftermath of the devastating flood that struck in September 2022, impacting 33 million people—approximately one-third of its population. The flood wreaked havoc, causing extensive damage to essential infrastructure, including road and railway networks, and vast swaths of rich agricultural land and crops. It displaced 8 million people and claimed numerous lives. The World Bank’s post-disaster assessment estimates damages surpassing USD 14.9 billion, with total economic losses reaching approximately USD 15.2 billion. The projected costs for rehabilitation and reconstruction stand at a minimum of USD 16.3 billion. But it is not just the extreme weather events tormenting the South Asian country; the staggering 37% poverty rate and low literacy level contribute significantly to its woes.

What the future holds

Pakistan’s 64% population is young (under 30 years old), filled with aspirations. They require education and 21st-century employable skills to navigate an ever-changing world. The problems of the past persist, and new problems are becoming more complex and challenging. Young people need a break. The people of Pakistan yearn for a reprieve. They need their politicians to not fail them. They need them to fix the curse of political dysfunction. That is why this election brings both the fear and the hope for the young people.

Although Pakistan’s journey towards political and economic stability may be narrow, it is not entirely closed; there is still a path forward. As surprising and ironic as it sounds, politicians should listen to the Army Chief’s message, “Elections are not a zero-sum competition of winning and losing but an exercise to determine the mandate of the people.” Khan, Sharif, and Bilawal Bhutto need to agree on a guiding democratic framework for the country, if not form a unity government.

To breathe life into Pakistan’s democracy and make it “functional and purposeful,” the people must be given their way. Khan and all the political prisoners should be freed and allowed to participate in the democratic processes and institutions. This will not only foster political trust but also cultivate goodwill among political actors.

Pakistan needs dynamic young leaders who can bring renewed energy, innovation, and a contemporary perspective to address the evolving challenges. The old political group has long held sway over the nation’s destiny, yet their tenure has yielded limited progress. It’s time for them to gracefully step aside and make room for fresh perspectives in Pakistan’s politics. Simultaneously, the military must revert to its intended role, embracing civilian control for harmonious democratic coexistence. Faiz’s “dawn of freedom” should be allowed a chance to shine from the clouds. That’s the only path to a prosperous and vibrant Pakistan.

Pius Fozan is a public policy student at Central European University and the Brandt School.