Pakistan dispatch: unraveling the fallout of political turmoil after the general election Dispatches
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Pakistan dispatch: unraveling the fallout of political turmoil after the general election

Law students and law graduates in Pakistan are reporting for JURIST on events in that country impacting its legal system. Mashal Asim Khan is an LLB student in the University of London External Programme at The Institute of Legal Studies (TILS). She files this from Islamabad. 

Pakistan conducted its 12th general election on 8th February in order to choose a new parliament, but the election failed to produce a clear winner. Inconclusive results and allegations of vote-rigging have triggered a crowd of objections. None of the three major parties of the country have won the necessary 169 seats to have a majority in parliament and are therefore unable to form a government on their own. This has led to opposing parties engaging in intense political maneuvering to form a coalition government.

One of the major political parties, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, is led by Imran Khan who is in jail, protesting his innocence after convictions for corruption and other charges. Due to actions taken by the Election Commission [ECP] and Supreme Court to severely restrict the involvement of his party, PTI members contested as independent candidates. They were forbidden from holding party gatherings and had their electoral symbol taken away. The PTI election headquarters and the residences of party-backed candidates were raided by the police, and reports surfaced of PTI-affiliated candidates being apprehended by law enforcement to keep them from running for office. Acts like these directed at a specific political party contradict the assertions made by the interim government and the ECP, that fair and impartial polling was carried out with all parties on equal footing.

Nevertheless, independent candidates backed by PTI won at least 96 of the 266 seats in the national assembly. They surpassed the Pakistan Muslim League [N] [PMLN] led by Nawaz Sharif, with 75 seats, and the Pakistan People’s Party [PPP] with 54 seats. Sharif was allowed to return to Pakistan last year after a four-year exile abroad to avoid serving prison sentences, and his convictions were overturned within weeks of his return. The MQM party, which is centered in Karachi, has also unexpectedly returned to prominence, securing 17 seats, and could play a potential role in any coalition.

Despite not being acknowledged as a parliamentary party, PTI has suddenly emerged as the single largest party in the national assembly. Many fervent PTI supporters, mostly women and young people, showed up to vote. For many, the vote marked a rejection of both dynasty politics and the nation’s formidable security establishment. Therefore, considering their popularity, any action that would impede the party’s democratic right to rule might have dire consequences.

The president is required by the constitution to call a new session of the National Assembly by February 29. He is required under Section 91[2] of the constitution to call a meeting no later than 21 days after the results of the election have been officially announced, or the notice has been issued. However, the real concern is what kind of government will be installed in the centre, particularly because the PTI has swept both the national and the provincial elections in KPK (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), making the situation highly unstable. The PMLN is now trying to cobble together a coalition government with the PPP and MQM, led by former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, so that they can together have a near majority of seats. Given that the PTI has stated it would not form an alliance with the PML-N or PPP, it is more probable that candidates connected with the party will sit in the opposition.

A very different electoral dynamic can be seen in southern Sindh, where the PPP has maintained its dominant position by clinching 84 seats out of announced 129, and the party also hopes to create Balochistan’s provincial government.

Shortly after the election, videos and particulars from polling stations were uploaded on social media, leading to accusations of result tampering, that will call into question the credibility of a future government. There was no attempt by the PPP or PML-N to publicize their seat count or progress, nor did they push for early disclosure of the results. The only teams who actively requested results from the ECP were the PTI teams. After a protracted wait, the UK Foreign Secretary expressed worry over “significant delays to the reporting of results and claims of irregularities in the counting process”. Independent candidates who did not win have rushed courts with vote-rigging charges, and at least six PTI-backed candidates who lost, have filed lawsuits in an attempt to overturn the outcome.

The election has proved to be a huge loss for Nawaz Sharif, who was preferred by the military establishment. For a nation that has experienced almost thirty years of military dictatorship, the army is an institution that is intricately entwined with society. Hence, the military in Pakistan has traditionally positioned itself as the last judge when it comes to choosing the prime minister. Therefore, Pakistani politicians are motivated to support the generals in order to rise to prominence since the country’s civil-military ties are biased in the army’s favour. Because military commanders have made investments in the democratic system, Pakistan’s government has evolved into a hybrid one that combines aspects of military rule with political democracy. This dynamic has damaged democratic elections, eroded the constitution, and compromised the judiciary.

Pakistan is a nation already beset by severe economic hardships and deep political divisions. The economy is in dire straits, with a rapidly weakening currency, an inflation rate of almost 30%, and 40% of the people living in poverty. Recently, tensions with Iran and Afghanistan, two neighbours, have increased due to rising fears about terrorism. High levels of political polarization are being experienced in the nation, and according to recent polls, over three-fourths of people believe that things might grow worse. Thus, this also points to the deep frustration of a population that is desperate for change and desperate for a new government to address, in particular, the acute economic crisis that currently faces the country.