Pakistan’s most
controversial election surprise

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By Nasim Zehra

AS results keep rolling in after Pakistan’s most controversial elections, the majority of Pakistanis are hugely relieved.

Above all, Pakistan’s most popular leader Imran Khan, imprisoned since the last many months and facing charges in hundreds of cases, has managed to emerge victorious in his political contest against the establishment. Many believe that the intensely bitter, out-of-parliament period of political feuding could potentially be behind them. Barring some specific results, generally the outcome has a potential for overall political reconciliation.

Of the many surprise outcomes of the polls, three are noteworthy. One, Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) whose leadership had banked on the establishment’s support to bring it back to power after having been defeated at the hustings in 2018, has been greatly disappointed after the results.

The PML-N and its three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif were hoping for a clean sweep, but that did not happen. The party has managed no more than about 25 percent to 30 percent of the national assembly seats. This means PML-N cannot form a government on its own. In Pakistan’s main province of Punjab, the PML-N is likely to form a government. There is therefore disappointment within the PML-N ranks.

While the entire Sharif family, six at least, have won their respective seats, many of the major PML-N leaders including experienced ministers like Khurram Dastagir and Rana Sanaullah have lost.

In fact, by being wiped out from major Punjab cities including Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Shiekhupura, PML-N’s core, Grand Trunk Road identity stands eroded for now.

Two, the Imran Khan-led PTI, Pakistan’s largest political party was not expected to fare well at the polls, not because it did not enjoy the peoples’ support, but because the powerful military establishment had sought PTI’s defeat since its falling out with the army top command and the PTI-planned backlash against military installations on May 9, 2023 after Imran Khan’s arrest. Many had foreseen that all means possible would be used to totally decimate the party at the polls. In the run up to the polls, state power, imprisonment, harassment, targeted attacks, victimization and law enforcement forces were used against PTI members seeking to contest the elections with Khan’s support.

The force of public resolve and determination, as manifested through their vote for the party, was reduced to tatters by questionable judicial moves against it and the sentencing and imprisonment of their party leader.

Imran Khan, for almost 66 years, demonstrated that peoples’ power could successfully subvert the plans of Pakistan’s establishment. For example, with the judiciary having left PTI without a single election symbol and effectively rendering the party non-existent during the elections, it was a tall order for millions of Pakistani voters to remember individual election symbols for hundreds of PTI national and provincial candidates. Nevertheless, PTI supporters across the country managed to vote for PTI candidates.

As election results continue to flow in, PTI-supported candidates are leading the race in the National assembly with 86 seats and with PML-N and PPP at number two and three. In a history-making outcome, in Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), PTI has swept the polls. Even in the other end of the country, in the important and major port city of Karachi, PTI has won several seats

Three, major PTI leaders (essentially Imran Khan’s deputies), who deserted him to form breakaway parties have been trounced at the polls. Khan’s one time lead confidante and supporter, Jehangir Tareen, and his former Chief Minister and Defense Minister Parvez Khattak, have both failed to win a seat in the parliament. The price for abandoning Khan has been huge; every one of Khattak’s seven family members who also contested on Khattak’s party ticket have lost.

All is not well for PTI as its contestants from several seats have challenged the results. The election result sharing procedure is being questioned by its members. Some have taken the matter to the courts. Legal battles will gain momentum as will the question of the PTI’s role in the next government.

It’s still rocky times for PTI as its problems with the establishment, while very important, remain unresolved including how the May 9 saga will be brought to a close.

It is time for PTI’s imprisoned, sentenced and convicted leader Imran Khan to think hard of the best way forward for the party and for himself.

(Nasim Zehra is an author, analyst and national security expert. Twitter: @NasimZehra)