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South Asia

Politics Bounces Back in Pakistan

The establishment and Imran Khan, the two implacable opponents of devolved and accommodative democratic politics in Pakistan, have played each other to a stalemate.

Once the dust settles on Pakistan’s recently concluded elections, some underlying facts will come into clearer focus, namely the further entrenchment of devolved and accommodative democratic politics.

So first the dust. The resilience of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) is, obviously enough, the big story. After he had fallen out with his former mentors in the country’s powerful ‘establishment’ – a euphemism for the armed forces’ extra-constitutional political power – he ended up in detention, and his party was put under legal and extra-legal pressures. In what became a test of their organisational ability, the party was unable to retain a unified election symbol and its nominees were forced to contest the elections as independent candidates. Despite these disadvantages and of course, the absence from the campaign of its popular leader, PTI managed to win more seats than any other party at the national level, and got a landslide majority in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It also went neck and neck with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) in the most populous Punjab province.

PTI supporters who are prone to grandiose historical comparisons are incorrect in claiming that either their persecution or their performance was unprecedented. Claims of bias are valid but do not amount to egregious deviations from past practice. The violence unleashed by the Musharraf regime and its alleged collaborators before the 2008 elections against its opponents claimed hundreds of lives including that of Benazir Bhutto. In the 2013 elections Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) selectively threatened and then attacked campaigns of three parties (PPP, ANP and MQM), murdering party supporters and kidnapping the son of former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani from a campaign event. The persecution of PMLN leaders and candidates in 2018 was, arguably, no less severe than what PTI faced this time round.

The PTI’s defiance and ‘bounce’ are also not unprecedented. The PPP mourning the loss of its charismatic leader went on to fight and win the 2008 elections on the slogan “democracy is the best revenge”, and the PMLN made a good showing in 2018 on the chant of “vote ko izzat do” or “respect the vote”. PTI joined the ranks of other parties when it too turned to the ballot as its primary form of protest calling for “zulm ka badla vote” or “vote to avenge injustice”.

What comes next is complicated for both the PTI and the establishment. Khan would want to use the electoral resilience of his party to negotiate with the establishment for his way out of detention and court cases, and possibly back into office. But while the political wind might be with him, parliamentary arithmetic is not. According to results already published by the election commission, PTI supported independents would constitute the largest bloc in the national assembly but fall well short of an overall majority. PTI leaders claim that they have been cheated out of many seats and that if awarded they would have a majority in the national and Punjab assemblies. Some, though not all, such claims might be valid, but legal challenges to declared results are likely to be long drawn affairs with no guarantee of success. In the meanwhile parliamentary business will need to be attended to, and PMLN with somewhat fewer seats than PTI, but with ongoing relationships with other parties and non-PTI independents, will most likely be able to demonstrate a majority.

The PTI might be tempted to use the momentum of its election win to switch to protest mode– about election irregularities and then about Khan’s detention. Khan’s fondness and ability to elevate his own person to a point of principle means that he might well demand this of his followers.  One example of such audacity was the failed attempt at ‘insurrection’ on May 9, 2023 when Khan’s supporters staged violent attacks on state symbols and military facilities in protest against his detention in a court case.

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

Alternatively, PTI winning candidates might want to focus on the humdrum processes of parliamentary politics, while keeping up lip service about the plight of their detained leader. They have an incontrovertible claim to forming the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and would constitute a powerful opposition in Punjab and in Islamabad. Getting involved in parliamentary politics and in returning to office in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would involve some level of autonomy from the whims of their popular leader. And it may expose them to fissures and factionalism. This process will start as soon as a few days from now when the PTI group will have to agree on parliamentary tactics and leadership positions nationally and in Punjab, and government formation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The conundrum for the ‘establishment’ is no less complicated. The PTI was mentored into office in 2018 to disrupt political accommodation between the PMLN and the PPP which was seen as encroaching upon the extra-constitutional powers of the establishment. Successive constitutional and legislative changes particularly the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the completion of parliamentary terms, and rival parties leading the various provincial and federal governments were all indicators of the consolidation of the political system. The PTI echoed the establishment’s distaste for political accommodation, and its charismatic leader magnified the narrative that politics and professional politicians are all about self-serving deal-making. He threatened to disrupt this system and to replace it with a more unitarian model with himself at the helm ably assisted by the establishment. Khan’s political ambitions brought him into conflict with his erstwhile mentors whose designated role for him was to disrupt the PMLN-PPP compact but who had not thought things through beyond that.

Now the establishment needs to hold Khan down because he has proven to be an unreliable interlocutor. It has no choice but to accept broader accommodation between the other political parties. Perhaps the most remarkable but unnoticed feature of the election results is the continuity in the popular mandate. The number of seats won by the main parties – notably PTI, PMLN, PPP – is very similar to the outcome in 2018. And as in 2018, the PTI has won a majority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PPP in Sindh, while Punjab remains split down the middle. In fact, the 2024 elections represent the third successive PTI win in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the fourth one for the PPP in Sindh. Party positions in national assembly seats from the provinces correspond closely with provincial assembly outcomes. Khan’s popularity as a ‘national’ leader has not dented the silent but steady shift of the centre of political gravity from Islamabad to the provincial capitals.

Election results demonstrated Khan’s popularity and the resilience of his party. But they do not change other salient facts. The establishment’s attempt at cornering politicians through the anti-politics Khan was hoisted on its own petard. The failure of Khan’s attempted ‘insurrection’ of May 2023 still looms heavy and there will be little appetite among his supporters or the public at large for the renewal of street protests in Punjab. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the PTI will have little reason to protest, as it is called upon to form a government, sending its legislators and their supporters scrambling for office and favour. The establishment and Imran Khan, the two implacable opponents of devolved and accommodative democratic politics in Pakistan, have played each other to a stalemate. Elected politicians, in the meanwhile, have their work cut out.

Haris Gazdar is Senior Researcher, Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi.