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  Opinion   Columnists  26 Feb 2024  K.C. Singh | Pakistan in a mess after polls, uncertainty ahead

K.C. Singh | Pakistan in a mess after polls, uncertainty ahead

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh.
Published : Feb 26, 2024, 11:08 pm IST
Updated : Feb 26, 2024, 11:08 pm IST

Surprising Results, Predictable Endgame: Unraveling the Complexities of Pakistan's General Election

Supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party protest against the alleged skewing in Pakistan's national election results, in Peshawar on February 17, 2024. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED / AFP)
 Supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party protest against the alleged skewing in Pakistan's national election results, in Peshawar on February 17, 2024. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED / AFP)

The February 8 general election in Pakistan, to the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly, provided a surprising outcome though with a predictable endgame.
The jailed Imran Khan, former Prime Minister and founder of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI), defied not only his two main rivals, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), but also the Army. His acrimony with the Army chief, Gen. Asim Munir, dates from his days as Prime Minister when he got the then Army chief, Gen. Qamar Ahmed Bajwa, to sack Gen. Munir from the coveted post of director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in 2019. Reportedly, Mr Khan was upset over an ISI report alleging that his latest wife Bushra Bibi was indulging in corruption. Now Mr Khan, instead of being the Army’s ally and nominee for the Prime Minister’s post, is their bugbear.

The elections were important to see how the Pakistan Army counters a populist-nationalist leader, wrapped in an Islamic shroud, asserting his independence. In the past, the Army let Prime Ministers, who outgrew its control, lose popularity due to corruption or criminality before hanging or jailing and eventually exiling them. The charges against Imran Khan were mostly petty like selling gifts received as Prime Minister. Gulf rulers showering expensive gifts on visiting dignitaries is not new. Even more unbelievable is that Imran Khan married Bushra Bibi within the forbidden period in Islamic law post-divorce. She claimed that her former husband had used the verbal triple talaq method to end her previous marriage, a year before she married Mr Khan. Her former husband now claimed a later divorce. Surely, he could have objected earlier after Bushra Bibi’s 2018 remarriage.

Pakistan, which has been under an interim government since August 14, 2023, acted to dismantle the PTI, rob it of its election symbol (which appropriately was a cricket bat) and harassed its members and sympathisers. Therefore, the PTI candidates had to run as Independents. With Pakistan’s levels of illiteracy, it was unimaginable how the voters determined which Independent was aligned to Imran Khan. Despite these machinations in the polling to 266 general seats in the National Assembly, the pro-PTI Independents won 93 seats, ahead of 75 for the PML(N) and 54 of the PPP.

Consequently, the two main opponents of the PTI fell short of a majority even with their seats pooled. The PTI immediately questioned the results, alleging massive fraud. They claimed that they actually had led in 125 seats. The European Union and the United States asked for a proper enquiry into these charges. Liaquat Ali Chattha, the commissioner of Rawalpindi, resigned on February 17, pleading mea culpa for election fraud. He managed, he claimed, a PML(N) victory in 11 out of 13 seats in his jurisdiction.

Pakistan’s Election Commission immediately rejected his claim, arguing that he had no role in the election. Others pointed out that his subordinates were directly involved. Facing official ire, he withdrew his charges five days later. Major Western newspapers were unanimous in condemning the election manipulation. However, the Commonwealth Observer Group gave a thumbs up to the conduct of the election.

The PTI initially claimed the right to form the national and some provincial governments. But the PPP and PML(N) quickly met to announce on February 13 their coalition government. Some hiccups developed as they discussed first a shared prime ministerial term. The PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and the PML(N)’s Maryam Nawaz Sharif are the heirs to the legacies of their respective parties and thus aspirants to the top position. The PPP, having fallen behind the PML(N) numbers, could hardly claim the prime ministership. On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif could not have his daughter supersede the claim of his brother Shehbaz Sharif, compelling him to support him as Pakistan’s next Prime Minister. Simultaneously they agreed to make Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal’s father, the next President, a position he has held earlier from 2008 to 2013 after the December 2007 assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto. In addition, Maryam is to be the chief minister of Punjab, perhaps a more powerful position than that of the head of a national coalition. The Sharif family probably calculated that Maryam may be able to burnish her credentials for the top position in Islamabad if, like her uncle Shehbaz, she makes a success of running Punjab. That leaves Bilawal adrift. He could resume his previous position as foreign minister, a position his grandfather effectively used to rise higher while at best seeking to be designated as deputy prime minister.

The question that is now being debated is whether this adjustment of rival ambitions can last a full term, with a bitter Imran Khan goading his forces, within and outside the National Assembly, to keep questioning the legitimacy of the new government.

Reports indicate that he has asked those Independents aligned to him and not yet poached to join the Sunni Ittehad Council. Apparently, some 50-odd have already done so. This is necessary as 70 seats, reserved for women and non-Muslims, get allotted on a proportionate basis.

There was media speculation in India that with Nawaz Sharif’s ascendancy, an outreach to India may begin as in the past. However, his sitting-out due to the lack of a clear mandate and Imran Khan’s shadow over the coalition will compel the current freeze in relations to continue. The Indian government is also preoccupied with domestic politics till May. Pakistan too has its economic mess to contend with. It also faces the threat of militants from across its western border gnawing at its stability. Moreover, the Pakistan Army would play even a stronger role regarding relations with India.

Most analysts around the world have called Pakistan’s election outcome as the people, especially the youth, delivering a slap on the Army’s face. But to hope that the folks in uniform will stop meddling in domestic politics would be quite premature.

Gen. Munir would like to use the new civilian government to complete the decapitation, political and hopefully not actual, of Imran Khan. But the more he is persecuted, the greater his iconic standing will grow. The Pakistan Army has managed to exacerbate the civilian political divide. If Pakistan has to attain normalcy, then political leaders have to rise above their differences and unite.

Asif Ali Zardari has experience of the Army’s vindictiveness and its tragic consequences. As indeed does Nawaz Sharif. But the unknown factor is Imran Khan. Sadly, Pakistan and the entire South Asian region are facing uncertain times ahead.

Tags: imran khan, nawaz sharif, pakistan elections 2024