The disastrous political fallout of Pakistan’s questionable electoral legitimacy
Marred by allegations of rigging, Pakistan’s election has produced no clear winner deepening the country’s political crisis. The polls have thrown many surprises. The return of a large number of “independent” candidates affiliated with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by incarcerated former prime minister Imran Khan has altered the entire power game. Meanwhile, the fragmented mandate has intensified the politics of wheeling and dealing.
Pakistan went to the polls last Friday with one of its largest political parties having been effectively forced out of the race after being denied the right to use a joint election symbol. That reinforced the widespread apprehension that the outcome had already been decided by the powers that be.
Until the very end, the police continued raiding PTI election offices and the homes of candidates backed by the party. There were also reports of candidates affiliated with the PTI being picked up by the authorities in order to prevent them from campaigning. Such actions against a particular party refute the claim of the caretaker administration and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) that all sides were given a level playing field and that polls were conducted in a free environment.
These repressive measures seemed part of a plan to dissuade PTI supporters from coming out to vote. Yet it had the opposite effect, causing angry supporters to break the walls of fear. The power of social media became a major tool for the party to mobilize its voters. Even the shutdown of Internet services on polling day did not succeed in stopping PTI voters.
These repressive measures seemed part of a plan to dissuade PTI supporters from coming out to vote. Yet it had the opposite effect, causing angry supporters to break the walls of fear.
A large number of motivated PTI supporters, mainly among youth and women, turned up to cast their votes. For them, it was a vote against the country’s powerful security establishment as well as against dynastic politics. This has now resulted in the emergence of PTI as the single largest party in the national assembly, even though it is not recognized as a parliamentary party.
Analysts allege that the tally of the so called “independents” in the assembly would have been even higher if the results had not been tampered with. The delay in the announcement of the results by the ECP has given some ring of truth to these allegations manipulation. The US, UK, and the European Union have separately expressed concerns about Pakistan’s electoral process and urged a probe into reported irregularities.
Meanwhile, the legal restraint of not being recognized as a parliamentary party might deny the “independent” group the share of the 70 seats reserved for women and religious minorities, virtually putting the largest political party out of contention to form the next government. This has cleared the field for the two other main parties- the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) led by Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) led by former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto to form the next government.
Prematurely declaring victory, Sharif has called for the formation of a coalition government with the PPP that has emerged as the third largest party in the parliament. Yet it’s not clear what the new power equation perceived of being pushed by the powerful military establishment will be. The negotiations are already underway to reach a deal between the two parties. Despite being defeated on one of the two national assembly seats he contested, Sharif is still hopeful of becoming prime minister for the fourth time.
But it will not be easy to cobble together a stable coalition administration disregarding the largest party in the parliament. The allegation of the results of many constituencies having been changed in favor of the PML-N candidates raises questions about the legitimacy of the entire electoral process.
What has made the situation more complex are the varied mandates obtained in different provinces. The PTI affiliated candidates have also emerged as the largest parties in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) strengthening its claim to form the government in these two provinces. Any move to prevent the party from its democratic right to form the government could be disastrous. Particularly the situation in the KP where the PTI have completely swept both the national as well as provincial election is extremely volatile.
A completely different electoral dynamic, however, has come into play in southern Sindh province where the PPP has held its dominant position. The party is also hopeful of forming the provincial government in Balochistan. But the real issue is what kind of government will be stalled in the center.
The allegation of a rigged mandate does not bode well for a country facing the worse economic crisis of its history. Pakistan needs political stability now more than ever, but a government with such doubtful legitimacy will only worsen the existing political polarization and further divide the country.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is the author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain