From Crisis to Crisis: Pakistan’s Recent Election Saga

The political drama of the nuclear-armed country mimics a South Asian soap opera.

The aim of this short essay is to analyze the unfolding events and the consequences of the Parliamentary elections in Pakistan in February 2024. We have been witnessing a multilayer crisis, which includes the political, economic, and security domains.

Imran Khan’s Removal and the 2024 Elections

Ever since its founding, Pakistan’s armed forces have had a dominant role in its political landscape. Pakistan, which faces existential threats from both the inside and the outside, has been depending more on the militarythan India, which has a democratic political structure. Following four military takeovers after its independence, Pakistan has experienced military dictatorship under Ayub Khan from 1958 to 1969, Yahya Khan from 1969 to 1971, Zia ul-Haq from 1978 to 1988, and Pervez Musharraf from 1999 to 2008. Pakistan’s political landscape has been dominated by two traditional parties in the interim between military takeovers. Primarily representing the regime’s base of Punjab, the first is the Pakistani Muslim League Nawaz faction (PML-N), which has been dominated by the Sharif family (Nawaz Sharif served as prime minister three times, while his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif served twice). The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has historically been dominated by the Bhutto family, primarily recruits from Sindh province’s agricultural basin. 

However, in the 2018 elections, a relatively new third political force—the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf, also known as the Pakistan Movement for Justice—and its widely popular leader, Imran Khan, secured the majority of seats in Parliament and were granted the authority to form a government. The former cricket player’s political party is a populist initiative that focuses on issues that the general public finds most important. A no-confidence vote against Imran Khan was held in the Parliament in April 2022 due to several factors, including his loss of military support. Nevertheless, in 2018, the former cricket player had almost complete authority in domestic matters, with the exception of military powers. Khan attempted to meddle in areas where the military possesses the upper hand, which later became a source of troubles. One example is the nomination of the next leader of Pakistan’s intelligence service (Inter-Services Intelligence, ISI) in 2021, which brought him into conflict with the army chief, General Bajwa. 

Because of his anti-Western stance, Imran Khan believes that Washington has determined to remove him from the prime ministership. With Imran Khan’s anti-US stance, Washington has grown even more skeptical of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the centerpiece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as it approaches its tenth anniversary. In an attempt to overthrow Imran Khan, the two established parties that had been at odds with one another formed the Pakistani Democratic Movement (PDI) in 2020. The PDI attacked the PTI for its mismanagement of the nation’s finances, which put the economy in danger of collapsing due to skyrocketing inflation, in addition to its anti-Western rhetoric.

The military forces attempted to make the political and legal climate adverse for the PTI by stopping the party from participating in the elections following the no-confidence vote against Imran Khan. The PML-N’s Shahbaz Sharif was named prime minister of the provisional unity government, which also included the PPP. The interim administration was tasked with overseeing the economy and maintaining political stability.

Since being removed from office, Imran Khan has attempted to reenter politics and subvert the military’s political power. Despite the fact that he hasn’t accomplished much in his two years in office, he has mobilized millions of Pakistani civilians. More than a year after his resignation due to corruption charges, Imran Khan was arrested on May 9, 2023, sparking countrywide political upheaval that culminated in violent rioting. Attacks on government buildings and military personnel by Imran Khan sympathizers prompted a severe response from the temporary administration. From the military forces‘ standpoint, the events of May 9 have been seen as a turning moment in relation to the elections.

The Election Fraud

After his dismissal as prime minister, the military forces have decided to stop Imran Khan and the PTI from running in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The elections were initially set for 2023, but delays forced a rescheduling of the date to February 2024. The fact that Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, was cleared of all charges and allowed to contest for a seat in Parliament by the military forces surprised a lot of people. Despite the public’s disenchantment with the two major parties, it was widely assumed that Nawaz Sharif was the military’s preferred candidate. To stop the party’s political effort, the military has attempted to utilize any possible charges against the PTI and its leader, Imran Khan. A week before the polls, the Supreme Court prohibited the use of the cricket bat, the party emblem, since, per the official legal narrative, only independent candidates are permitted to run. Concurrently, Imran Khan was sentenced to 31 years in prison.

            After the PTI was subjected to all legal constraints, the outcomes of the elections held on February 8, 2024, were unexpected. Despite the social media bans, the PTI was able to organize its supporters and win the majority of seats (93 out of 256) with its independent candidates. Since the PTI is prohibited, they were forced to join one of the existing parties. The majority of them have chosen to work with the tiny Sunni Ittehad Council, and PTI independent candidates have joined the group. Imran Khan claims a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and his supporters believe the military manipulated the election

            Shahbaz Sharif, not Nawaz Sharif, was named the coalition’s prime minister candidate after the PML-N and the PPP reached a power-sharing agreement because neither party could form the government on its own. The Parliament voted, and Shahbaz Sharif was sworn in as prime minister. Omar Ayub Khan, the PTI’s nominee, is a critic of the armed forces and the grandson of a former military dictator. 

The Challenges Ahead

Even with the military’s backing for the prime minister, Shahbaz Sharif’s government could face difficult circumstances.

First, the government’s authority and the efficiency of the decision-making process may be questioned by a powerful opposition in the parliament. 

Second, the PTI drama is still ongoing. It implies that Imran Khan has the ability to periodically incite public outrage, which could result in riots such as those that occurred on May 9, 2023. Any political turmoil would jeopardize the legitimacy of the current administration and threaten national political stability.

Third, there should be an improvement in the security situation because 2023 was one of the bloodiest years in Pakistan’s history, with a sharp increase in the number of attacks. A twin explosion in the region of Baluchistan occurred just days before the elections, leaving 28 people dead. The increase in terror attacks has been associated primarily with neighboring Afghanistan, which had a negative impact on Pakistan’s security situation after the Taliban takeover in August 2021. A recent report published by the UN Security Council, which has been rejected by the Afghan Taliban in Kabul, stipulates that: “The link between the Taliban and both Al-Qaida and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) remains strong and symbiotic. A range of terrorist groups have greater freedom of maneuver under the Taliban de facto authorities.” Since November 2022, the 6-month truce between the TTP and Islamabad has ended, leaving the country in a vulnerable security situation. 

Lastly, there should be an immediate treatment for the economic downturn. Pakistan’s foreign reserves are so low that they can barely sustain imports for six weeks, with monthly inflation reaching 28% in January 2024 and interest payments accounting for almost 57% of the country’s government budget. State subsidies are necessary for citizens to survive, which hinders the development of a competitive economy. Pakistan received USD 1.2 billion immediately from the 3 billion standby agreement that the temporary administration struck with the IMF in July 2023. 

A Geopolitical Struggle

Given Pakistan’s centrality to the rivalry between the United States and China, international players have vested interests in the outcome of the elections and the nation’s future. China sent a warning to the military that any instability would harm bilateral relations immediately following the elections by calling for „political unity and social stability.“ China’s relationship with Pakistan, which Nawaz Sharif referred to as a „friendship higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey, and stronger than steel,“ is particularly sensitive to security issues. Crucial infrastructure for Chinese trade activity, the CPEC links Gwadar Port to the Kunjerab Pass in the north. Two terrorists have been killed as they attacked Chinese workers at a Chinese-financed construction site in Pakistan in August 2023.

Even while the United States has expressed worries about election manipulation in Pakistan, Washington has also been critical of Imran Khan. „These elections included undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly,“ a US spokesperson stated. Following the announcement on the first day of Prime Minister Sharif’s tenure, the administration promptly requested that discussions regarding additional financial help under the Extended Fund Facility be resumed with the International Monetary Fund. Given that China has not demonstrated the capacity or inclination to support Pakistan’s faltering economy, Washington has the leverage to weaken ties between Pakistan and China. It re