Pakistan’s surprising election results, explained

An elderly Pakistani man with a long white beard wears a giant cutout of Khan on his chest and raises his arms in victory, surrounding by jubilant, cheering men pointing at the blue sky.
Supporters of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party celebrate Pakistan’s election results. | Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Imran Khan’s candidates won the most votes. He can’t be prime minister. What next?

Pakistan’s parliamentary elections ended in a surprise upset, one that could make the transition to the next government a chaotic affair and that could leave the winning politicians without real governing power.

Backed by Pakistan’s powerful and influential military establishment, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was expected to win last Thursday’s vote handily, restoring controversial former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to his old post. However, voters handed a stunning victory to politicians allied with jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

But that doesn’t mean Khan will be the next prime minister, or even that his party will lead the next government.

PTI was essentially prohibited from running candidates after the Supreme Court ruled they could not use their electoral symbol on ballots; many PTI politicians instead ran as independents. And independent candidates, most of them associated with PTI, took 92 seats in Pakistan’s parliament — more than each of the other major parties. That would normally give a party the upper hand in forming a government and in choosing a prime minister. But since the independents aren’t part of a party, PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), both of which are headed by members of dynastic political families, are in talks to form a coalition to lead the next government.

Practically, that might not result in massive changes to daily life. None of the major parties have very cogent or convincing plans to deal with Pakistan’s economic and security woes.

“In terms of the parties’ plans to tackle Pakistan’s economic and security problems, there is not much difference,” Madiha Afzal, a fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, told Vox by email. “The thing is, we have seen all these parties (and candidates) holding power before, and they did not fundamentally change the trajectory of the country, and especially not its economy.”

Pakistanis’ vote, then, can best be understood less as an endorsement of a political agenda and more as a damning rebuke of the political establishment and the military power that undergirds it.

Who will lead Pakistan now?

Even if PTI could form the next government, Khan couldn’t be the next prime minister; he is barred from holding elected office for 10 years due to his criminal convictions.

Pakistan’s Parliament will have to form a coalition government, and that’s likely going to be a PML-N and PPP coalition, with Shehbaz Sharif, brother of the PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, becoming the prime minister.

“Most people — even those who follow Pakistani politics quite closely — were surprised at what happened on February 8, and this includes not only the number of people who came out to vote” in what was expected to be a very low-turnout election, as Niloufer Siddiqui, an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at SUNY-Albany, told Vox in an interview.

Support for PTI politicians was especially surprising given the many efforts to prevent such a victory, including jailing some politicians before the election and preventing the party from using their electoral symbol — the cricket bat, in reference to Khan’s past as a cricket star — on ballots.

Nawaz, the elder Sharif, has been prime minister three times before, starting in the 1990s; however, he’s never served out a full term and has twice gone into exile. But during his most recent term, starting in 2013, he was able to stabilize the economy and secure infrastructure investment from China — a step that’s now backfiring as Pakistan, like many other poor countries indebted to China, finds the bill coming due.

Sharif was also unsuccessful at managing Pakistan’s very serious security concerns, mostly stemming from extremism fomented in neighboring Afghanistan but also from local insurgencies and from ISIS-Khorasan, the Sunni extremist group that operates in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

There is a chance that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 35-year-old leader of the PPP, could be elected prime minister, particularly if independent politicians and those from smaller parties back the choice. “Our party wants Bilawal as prime minister,” PPP officer Faisal Karim Kundi said in an interview on Pakistan’s Geo TV, Reuters reported. “No one can form a government without us.”

Bhutto Zardari is the son of Benazir Bhutto — Pakistan’s first woman prime minister, who was assassinated in 2007 — and former President Asif Ali Zardari. Bhutto Zardari is also the grandson of former president and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Though part of an old Pakistani political family, Bhutto Zardari geared his campaign toward younger voters and focused on a platform that proposed economic change centered on climate change.

What does this say about Pakistan’s democracy?

The coming weeks are likely to be tense as Pakistan’s Parliament tries to form a government and PTI supporters show their allegiance — and voice their frustration with the political and military establishment.

“We can think of this vote as some combination of being pro-PTI in nature; it should also be seen as being anti-incumbent in nature,” Siddiqui said; that is, a rejection of politics as usual.

That means a rejection of the hybrid nature of Pakistani politics, which has democratic systems like elections and a judiciary but is, to one degree or another, directed by the military. A series of military coups has plagued Pakistan’s democracy, and despite competitive elections and active political parties, it’s the ultimate power — a dynamic that Khan and Sharif have both experienced as their falling out with the military establishment damaged their political careers (though Sharif appeared to repair his relationship with the military ahead of the election).

Asfandyar Mir, senior expert in the South Asia program at the US Institute of Peace, told Vox the system has stifled the efforts of democratically elected leaders. “Various institutional actors,” he told Vox, “have come to accept the limits that they need to stay within … and that cedes political space for the military to enjoy certain prerogatives in the Pakistani political system.”

Until now, both the Pakistani people and the international community have largely accepted that as the status quo. However, Khan’s supporters have come to see him as an outsider battling corruption — someone outside the political establishment who understands their problems. And that’s why their endorsement of PTI-affiliated politicians represents a rejection of politics as usual.

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