12 February 2024

Confusion reigns in Pakistan’s rigged election

Until very recently Nawaz Sharif
seemed certain to be Pakistan’s next prime minister. On February 6th his Pakistan Muslim League (pml-n) party took out full-page adverts in major Pakistani newspapers announcing its imminent victory in elections on February 8th and anointing Mr Sharif the head of its new government. Assured of the support of the country’s powerful army, which has in effect been running the country through a loyal caretaker government since Parliament was dissolved in August, Mr Sharif, a three-time former prime minister, and his party appeared set to romp home.

That confidence is starting to look premature. Mr Sharif’s path had been cleared by the imprisonment of the country’s most popular politicians, the former prime minister Imran Khan, and de facto outlawing of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (pti) party. Yet early results suggest that pti candidates, running as independents, have nonetheless done much better than expected. More than 24 hours after polls closed, results had been announced for 148 of the country’s 265 directly-elected parliamentary seats. These give independent candidates 61 seats to the pml-n’s 43.

The unusually slow rate at which the results are being announced has raised suspicions that the result could yet be massaged by the army. Pakistan’s rumour-mill is always awhir. At the least, the country looked to be headed for a hung parliament, or complex coalition negotiations, rather than the expected shoo-in of Mr Sharif and his party.

The way the election has unfolded already looks awkward for the army, which had appeared as confident as Mr Sharif that voters would heed its warning not to support Mr Khan. In the weeks before the vote, many pti leaders were imprisoned or disqualified from running unless they pledged to leave the party, depriving it of its first tier candidates. Those that shrugged off the intimidation to run as independents were largely prevented from campaigning openly. The election commission stripped pti of its electoral symbol, a cricket bat—evoking Mr Khan’s past record as one of the country’s greatest sportsmen. (The country’s Supreme Court overturned a lower-court ruling that the symbol should be restored.)

The commission also marked pti candidates as “independent” on the ballot. That made them harder to spot for voters in a country where 40% of the population is illiterate. A week before the election, Mr Khan was sentenced to three long prison terms in dubiously quick succession on counts of corruption, disclosing state secrets and getting married illegally.

On election day, voting was further hampered by a blanket shutdown of mobile-phone networks. The interior ministry justified the blackout by citing security concerns following two bomb blasts in Balochistan, a violent region on the border with Iran, that killed dozens on the day before the election. Another twelve people, mostly members of the security forces, were killed in several attacks on election day. Yet the lack of internet and phone signals appears to have dampened turnout, as well as contributing, with good reasons, to the suspicions of rigging. The shutdown made it difficult for voters to access a text-messaging service directing them to polling stations and to organise cars and buses to travel to them.

Confusion continued after polls closed. The election commission was hit by unspecified “internet issues”. This delayed the count until the early morning of February 9th, violating a legal requirement to produce results by 2am. pti supporters promptly accused the army and the caretaker government of rigging the election; social media were filled with videos alleging irregularities at polling stations. (Election authorities denied these allegations.)

The pti candidates strong showing suggests that, even if the army manages to implant Mr Sharif in the end, its attempts to sideline Mr Khan have backfired. The results so far are a clear sign of voters’ dissatisfaction with the old ways of doing politics, says Ayesha Siddiqa, an analyst in London. “Pakistani voters have shown that they will not accept being dictated to, that they have their own choices and preferences.” One senior pml-n leader said the results already constituted “probably the biggest election upset in Pakistan’s political history”.

Yet even if pti candidates win outright, Mr Khan will not become prime minister. And figures in Mr Sharif’s party, whose seat count began to catch up with the pti rump’s as February 9th wore on, insisted that they would end up with enough seats to form a government. If so, it looked possible that that would have to be a wobbly coalition with an array of smaller parties. Alternatively, Mr Sharif’s party might even be edged out by its other main rival, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party, which is strongest in the southern province of Sindh. Or the army, which has ruled Pakistan directly for much of its history, might be tempted to try to do so again.

None of this bodes well for a country that was last year bailed out by the imf for the 23rd time and remains in a state of economic crisis. Pakistan desperately needs political stability. However this democratic charade pans out, it looks unlikely to get it. ■

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