By Umair Javed, Lahore University of Management Sciences in Lahore
He may be banned and his party in disarray but Imran Khan will be an influential figure in Pakistan’s election.
Pakistan’s elections on February 8 come after one of the most turbulent periods in the country’s history.
Around 127 million people will go to the polls on the back of a politically and economically choppy 20 months, dating back to the removal of the then-Prime Minister Imran Khan and his governing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party through a no-confidence vote in April 2022.
Since then, the country has endured riots and came perilously close to economic collapse. It is faced with a large current account deficit and mounting foreign debt payments pushing the country to the brink of a default, staved off only by a bailout from the IMF, with additional support from China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
While there has been some semblance of economic stability, these elections take place at a time of low economic growth and rampant inflation, which touched a multi-decade high of 37.97 percent in 2023.
Politically, the past two years have been significant. There’s been the breakdown of previously close relations between the military and Imran’s PTI over foreign policy postures and military staffing practices.
Since the eruption of this conflict, Imran has rallied his supporters and publicly blamed the military high command, opposing parties, and the United States for conspiring to remove his government.
Things came to a head when in an unprecedented act Imran’s supporters protested outside, and in some cases attacked, military offices and installations on May 9, 2023.
In response, the military cracked down on the party and orchestrated a series of court cases against its leaders, including Imran. These range from fomenting insurrection, financial malpractice, personal moral fallibility and the misuse of state secrets.
Imran has been sentenced to two separate jail sentences and remains disqualified from contesting. Several other prominent PTI leaders are in hiding.
Despite efforts to marginalise its prospects, the PTI still commands significant popularity among voters.
Aided by its successors presiding over a period of high inflation and mass unemployment and a vocal, populist confrontation that targets the military and the United States, the party still has a two point lead over its closest competitor, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML(N). Imran continues to enjoy the highest approval ratings of all national-level politicians.
In a relatively fair contest, the PTI would likely convert this popularity into a reasonable shot at forming a government.
However, the military establishment is unlikely to allow that to happen. Crackdowns on campaigning by candidates and party workers have continued unabated in the run-up to the election.
In January 2024, the Supreme Court further tightened the noose on the PTI by upholding a decision by the Election Commission to strip the party of its ballot symbol – a cricket bat. PTI candidates are now contesting as independents with separate symbols in each constituency, which is bound to hamper their election-day performance.
Things, however, look brighter for the PML(N).
Memories of a similar tiff six years ago — replete with disqualifications, court cases, and incarceration — between the military and PMLN’s leader and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif seem to have faded. Sharif has returned to the country after four years of self-imposed exile in the UK, with most charges against him hurriedly cleared by an obliging court.
Despite enjoying such favoured status, the PML(N)’s path to gaining a reasonable majority in the National Assembly remains less than certain.
For the 266 directly elected seats countrywide, the inevitable battleground is the province of Punjab with its 141 seats. About 85 of them are in the PMLN’s historical base of North and Central Punjab, where the PTI’s populist message of haqeeqi azadi or ‘true independence’ has made significant inroads in the past 18 months.
PML(N)’s hopes, then, rest on Nawaz’s reminders of past infrastructure projects and promises of post-election economic stability resonating with an inflation and unemployment-burdened electorate.
Compensating for expected attrition to its core base will require PML(N) to pick up seats in rural Western and Southern Punjab, as well as Balochistan. Here, its prospects look brighter.
The region’s politics is controlled by large, landed families, whose success in recent elections is contingent on voters’ and local elites’ perception of a candidate’s alignment with the military. Since Sharif’s return, and a number of court decisions going his way, this perception has hardened.
The provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh are expected to post results similar to 2018. The PTI’s near-hegemonic status in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is likely to continue.
In Sindh, the Pakistan People’s Party is expected to hold on to its dominance in rural areas, and may even register some gains in the provincial capital, and largest city, Karachi.
In its current configuration, the electoral landscape is unlikely to produce a government with a large majority. A coalition with smaller parties and the cajoled and coerced influx of independent winners – some of whom may even be from the PTI – may see the PML(N) over the line.
This will give Sharif the premiership for a second time in 11 years, though in radically different circumstances. A return to power – if it does happen – will likely resemble a slow trudge, and one that features considerable assistance from the military.
Economically, the preceding 18 months offer a glimpse of the near-future.
The military has progressively taken on larger roles in policy making, through bodies such as the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC). From managing foreign investment and policy decisions to approving public works programs, the SIFC is expected to retain its position of primacy in the short-term, even once a new government is elected.
Politically, a thin majority guaranteed by the military is unlikely to prove a very stable or reform-oriented arrangement.
Regardless of how they get there, civilian prime ministers tend to find their own voice once in office, leading to yet more conflict with the military establishment, and yet another exercise of coerced political curation.
It won’t be surprising at all if today’s outcasts find a way back in over the next few years. The loss, though, will be borne by an electorate desperately in need for stability and a persuasive pathway of sustained and equitable growth.
Umair Javed is Assistant Professor in the MAG School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences, Lahore, Pakistan.