fbpx Skip to main content

On Thursday, Feb. 8, Pakistan, a country of 250 million people — the fifth most populous globally — hit the polls for its 12th general election. It came amid growing political and economic instability and a security crisis. For most voters, this election was the least credible in the nation’s 76-year history.

Originally scheduled for November 2023, many were apprehensive the election would take place because the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) postponed the event, citing the need to await census results. However, many attributed the delay to an effort to undermine the ousted prime minister Imran Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and provide time for the return of Nawaz Sharif and his party, the Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). 

In the lead-up to the February election, the electorate saw alleged military interference, escalated violence, social media shutdowns, and several bogus charges against political opponents, casting significant doubt on the election’s integrity. Due to this complicated backdrop against which the elections took place, weeks passed before the results were finalized. 

Despite the setbacks they faced, independent candidates — supported by the PTI and its jailed leader, Imran Khan — successfully secured the most parliamentary seats, totaling 93, followed by Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N securing 75, and in third, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) securing 54. However, since no party won the necessary 169 seats to form a government of their own, the PML-N, PPP, and a few other small parties formed a coalition government, with the former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif elected as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Imran Khan’s supporters took to the streets to accuse the military of vote-rigging. 

The Jailed Frontrunner

This cycle’s election centered on one of the country’s most popular politicians, Imran Khan, who was notably missing from the ballot. A cricket star turned politician who used to be the military’s darling, Khan eventually found himself out of favor with the army and, ultimately, was excluded from the political arena. 

In Pakistan, the military is heavily entangled in the country’s politics, repeatedly installing and, thereafter, uninstalling presidential candidates. In fact, no prime minister has carried out a full term without being removed by the military. 

In 2018, the military paved the way for Khan to the prime ministership by removing Nawaz Sharif and arresting prominent members of Sharif’s party. It also heavily censored the media, shaping Khan’s image as the country’s savior who would create a “naya Pakistan” (new Pakistan). 

In 2022, the tables turned against him. Falling out of the military’s graces, Khan was removed from power after an unprecedented vote of no confidence. He was subsequently barred from participating in the next election and detained. He is now serving a 34-year sentence: three years for the lack of disclosure of state gifts, 10 for charges of revealing state secrets, 14 for allegations of graft, and seven for a reported illegal Islamic marriage. The latter three charges were made over the span of three days, about one week before the Feb. 8 election.  

Dismantling the Opposition

With Khan behind bars, PTI supporters opted to contest the elections as independent candidates despite the continued crackdown they faced, including intimidation tactics, arbitrary detentions, and coerced renunciations of party affiliation. Officials restricted several PTI candidates from campaigning, censored news coverage of the party, and imposed internet blackouts to block live-streamed speeches by party leaders. The PTI alleged that police raided and sealed election offices and ransacked the homes of party leaders, supporters, and affiliates. Dozens of PTI leaders claim that they were pressured or tortured to leave the party at risk of imprisonment. The Supreme Court of Pakistan even ruled against the PTI’s use of the party’s cricket bat symbol on ballots, which matters in a country with a literacy rate of 58%, where a recognizable symbol can be crucial to a campaign’s visibility. 

PTI members also struggled to organize public events due to a de facto ban on campaigning in large parts of the country and restricted access to television airwaves. They turned instead to virtual rallies, becoming the first party to utilize AI technology to deliver Khan’s speech from behind bars. These efforts were thwarted by a nationwide Internet shutdown and blockage of major social media platforms. On election day, Pakistan disrupted mobile phone and internet services, citing the need to “mitigate potential security threats” and “maintain law and order.” 

Despite these efforts, the independent PTI candidates emerged from the elections with the largest number of winners in Parliament, solidifying the PTI’s position as Pakistan’s most popular political party. However, since they ran as individuals, not as a party or coalition, they cannot establish a government and have declined to ally with either the PML-N or PPP.

The Returned Candidate 

With Khan and much of his party silenced, the military orchestrated the return of Nawaz Sharif, PML-N leader, who served as Prime Minister in 1990, 1997, and 2013. 

Sharif was ousted once in 2017, arrested on corruption charges, and sentenced to ten years. In an alleged backroom deal to usher in his return from a four-year self-imposed exile, Sharif’s charges were overturned, and his lifetime ban on holding office lifted, promptly positioning him as the “selected” prime minister for the February election.

Despite Nawaz Sharif’s dramatic return and significant military backing, he failed to secure the favor of the public, but his party, the PML-N, reached a formal agreement with the PPP to form a coalition government. However, in a surprising turn of events, instead of Nawaz Sharif, they nominated Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s brother, as the candidate for prime minister.

An Unstable Future

Shehbaz Sharif, 72, was elected as prime minister by the National Assembly after three weeks of inconclusive results. He is now poised to embark on his second term as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the coming days. Sharif’s administration is tasked with addressing the country’s rapidly deteriorating economic situation and security conditions. He faces the challenge of navigating the substantial influence of the military while also managing potential disagreements within the coalition government of the PML-N and PPP.

As Pakistan grapples with economic turmoil in recent years, the new government will also have to tackle soaring inflation, rising unemployment, and increasing violent attacks, particularly from the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and Iran, which further magnify the military’s undue influence over the government.

As Pakistan confronts these formidable challenges, the return to democracy appears increasingly unlikely, leaving citizens with waning hope that the Shehbaz government will be able to put the nation back on track.