Making sense of the Islamabad mandate - Hindustan Times
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Making sense of the Islamabad mandate

Feb 12, 2024 08:00 AM IST

A government with doubts about its legitimacy makes it difficult to be optimistic about Pakistan in the short term

What precisely the Pakistan election results mean will long be debated. That Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-backed candidates who contested as independents would do so well has belied virtually all pre-poll assessments. It should also shock the complacency of analysts who posit linear outcomes based on simplistic principles that the Pakistan military controls everything.

Pakistan election results 2024 LIVE: Supporters of Imran Khan’s PTI in Karachi on Saturday. (REUTERS)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Pakistan election results 2024 LIVE: Supporters of Imran Khan’s PTI in Karachi on Saturday. (REUTERS)(HT_PRINT)

Notwithstanding all the pre-poll pressures on Khan — imprisonment, debarment from politics, convictions — and on the PTI, as well as the numerous credible reports of actual rigging in many constituencies, the fact remains that the overall results broadly reflect the sentiments on the ground. Whether the election was free and fair now appears less important than the fact that it has delivered a generally credible outcome against all odds.

PTI-backed independents are clearly the single largest bloc in the candidates declared successful for the National Assembly. Perhaps, if Khan had not been barred from contesting and his party allowed to campaign, he would have easily been the leading contender to become prime minister again. But what happens now is less clear. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) is now technically the single largest party, followed by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and they may well form a coalition government with the support of smaller parties and by leaching away some independents. It can reasonably be expected that this will now be the favoured option for the military as it will seek to consolidate its supporters in the face of this setback. Other permutations and combinations are also possible depending on how the independents will behave and the extent of their loyalty to Khan and the PTI.

At the provincial level, the results are a mixed bag. In Sindh, the PPP will form the government again as expected. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the independents backed by the PTI are preponderant and can be expected to form the government in some manner once it is decided how they will act together in the absence of a party to unite them. In Punjab, the picture is similar to, and as confused as, the one at the national level. Here too some kind of coalition will have to be improvised. Perhaps the effort of the PML (N) will be to lure as many PTI-backed independents as possible to its side. But the moral victory rests with the PTI and what this means politically is that a certain chronic instability can be predicted.

Khan and his supporters may well contest the results on the grounds that even with all the pre-poll manipulations against them, the result would have been a landslide in their favour but for the polling being rigged. There are numerous reports of counts being delayed and results not announced to enable outcomes to be distorted and fixed. Yet, the results — even with their distortions — at their most general level clearly vindicate the view that at the grassroots there is a latent anti-military sentiment and political success comes to those who successfully harvest it as Khan did this time. Sharif’s party and his own standing suffered because they had moved away from their quarter-century-long opposition to military position to being in concert with it this time.

Secondly, the view that Khan has nurtured a near cult-like following clearly has substance. The imprisonment and the convictions he has faced have buttressed his reputation. While other PMs, including Sharif, have been treated as cavalierly in the past by the military as they have treated Khan this time, the fact is he has exhibited an intensity of defiance that was qualitatively new and that further burnished his reputation. While instances of dogged but quiet resistance to military inroads into civilian domains exist in Pakistan, examples of public and upfront defiance are much less common. Khan’s behaviour after his dismissal resembled, in many ways, the public defiance of the then chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhury in 2007. The protests that then followed had meant the beginning of the end of the General Musharraf era.

Thirdly, the younger generation of voters — and Pakistan has a prominent youth bulge — find Khan’s political style a contrast to the tired and time-worn slogans of his opponents.

Finally, these results do show how difficult it is getting for Pakistan’s military to reorder Pakistan’s politics in the way it wants. Perhaps it is easier to deal with a few political leaders than with large public constituencies with charged-up electorates frustrated and agitated at the tailspin they see the country in with its mounting economic, political and security problems. It is a different matter whether Khan’s tenure as PM made any real advance in addressing these issues. The point is he has successfully used the downslide since his removal in April 2022 to create a strong narrative of domestic and foreign conspiracies targeting him so that Pakistan could be controlled by vested interests. The military’s efforts to counter this narrative evidently proved ineffective.

What of the future? At the conceptual level these results certainly assert the strength of the political sphere in Pakistan, and the capacity of its political class and civil society to assert themselves and to defend and expand their space even in opposition to the military. Such assertion and expansion of the political sphere cannot but be a good thing for Pakistan in the medium- and long-term given the dominance of the military for long periods and the major negative consequences that have emerged from its highly securitised approaches to a whole host of issues.

In the short-term, the picture is more negative. The results mean another bout of coalition governments that require constant support of the military and which otherwise have diminished credibility. Such governments are not unusual in Pakistan. Khan himself headed such a government after the 2018 election when the PML (N) was forced out. The difference is that at that time the PML (N) saw that the cards were stacked against it and accepted the situation. Khan and his charged-up support base are unlikely to do so now.

At the very least this means further prolonged instability in Pakistan with a heightened possibility of further and intensified civil-military conflicts. The military remains, regardless of this result, a major decision-maker in Pakistan. Yet the impact of this blow to its public credibility will be felt in numerous ways. Most of all, given the myriad problems Pakistan confronts, a government without a clear mandate and with a question mark around its legitimacy means in the short-term it is difficult to be optimistic about Pakistan.

TCA Raghavan is a former high commissioner to Pakistan. The views expressed are personal

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