Pakistan, our neighbouring nation, is infamous for coups having taken place before almost every change of government. Not many change of guards have taken place without bloodshed or army intervention. The latest election, which was completed last Wednesday, has, however, proved to be an exception. Most unexpectedly the Pakistani electorate has given a verdict in favour of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). While the local newspapers are now claiming that Imran and his men were fairly confident of emerging as the largest party in Wednesday’s elections, they could not have imagined that they would make such a strong showing that would result in Imran becoming Pakistan’s next Prime Minister.
Even some academics, supposedly looking at empirical data, got it very wrong. Although all the results have been neither verified nor notified, and many Assembly seats will be once again vacant after the contenders, including Imran himself, who won all his five constituencies, who won from more than one seat, no one is going to dare stand in the way of his greatest, crowning moment. Now, the latest information clearly indicates that Imran is in a position to take the reins with the help of some smaller parties and independents.
In many cases, the victory margins of the PTI are huge and impressive. The party has even made considerable inroads into former Prime Minister and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader Nawaz Sharif’s fortress of the Punjab, coming a near second. It will probably form the government in those provinces as well, with many of the Independents and breakaway members. Many key members of the PML (N), including former national and provincial ministers, have been defeated, including in the party’s core constituencies such as Lahore and Faisalabad. The PTI is the first party to be re-elected in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, increasing its seats. Perhaps the biggest shock has been the rout of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in its perceived stronghold, Karachi, where the PTI has again made significant gains. One can safely say that these elections have proved to be a ‘turning point’ in Pakistan’s electoral history.
In a cursory analysis one can see a number of reasons why the PTI has won. Some of these are part of Pakistan’s perpetual political economy and are more standard, and there is one possible explanation that is particularly bizarre. It has been clear for many months now that Pakistan’s military establishment, with support from the superior judiciary, did not under any circumstances want Sharif’s party to win. This establishment went out of its way to ensure that he was disqualified and imprisoned, and that many of his former allies and comrades either joined the PTI or contested as independents. In southern Punjab, several of Sharif’s allies abandoned him en masse.
Furthermore, the MQM in Karachi was broken up into many groups. There was much pre-poll rigging by the military. Independent commentary in the media was controlled and censored and many journalists and media houses were threatened and shut down. Open discussion and those dissenting were threatened in unprecedented ways, reminiscent of Pakistan’s many martial laws. Despite being the military’s favourite representative, Imran must also be credited for a forceful campaign. He could not have won without believing that he would. He travelled the country, speaking at multiple events on the same day in different cities. While the leaders of other parties did the same, he was more visible on electronic media and had a huge presence on social media. He was also told that it was important to have winnable candidates and advised to take many dubious candidates into his party who were considered electable. Pakistan’s demography – with a large proportion of young and first-time voters, called ‘youthias’, supporting the PTI, and this too is likely to have worked in Imran’s favour.
Imran has been soft on the Taliban. During his campaign, he stated that he would have a nationalist, anti-US and anti-India foreign policy. He is a born-again Muslim now with a Tasbeeh (rosary) in his hands, a conservative Muslim nationalist who believes in neo-liberal economic policies. Since his party has not won complete majority, he will have to be in conciliatory mode and show a far more inclusive attitude towards other groups in Parliament than he did during his campaign. On the day after the elections, seven losing parties called the elections rigged. One senior leader called them “the dirtiest polls in the history of Pakistan”, and the PML (N) rejected the results outright.
It is possible that the opposition parties may have learnt from Imran’s tactics in the previous elections. First, he did not accept the results, and as the enfant terrible, claimed that the 2013 elections were completely rigged. He took his case to the streets in his famous dharna of 2014, and to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The ECP found almost no rigging during the 2013 elections, and he had to reluctantly accept the results.
The elections termed as most controversial and rigged are now over. It is also very clear that Imran Khan is Pakistan’s next Prime Minister. Whether his wife’s prophecy of Pakistan entering a golden era will come true or not in ‘Naya Pakistan’ will depend, to start with, on how the Prime Minister-designate handles the immediate expected backlash from the political parties which have lost. Imran, till now the vitriolic candidate and opposition leader, will have to be mature enough to have a more sobering effect on the government and on his many first-time, overly enthusiastic ministers who are inexperienced in governance, much like himself. Probably the considerable influence of the military and the judiciary on him will go a long way in helping Imran in this aspect. Or, perhaps, the current Imran Khan’s visions will now guide his and the country’s future.
The moot question still remains: How will he behave with India? Is there any possibility that the ever-soured relations between the two siblings-turned-foes will improve? Let’s wait for a few months after Imran takes over. It’s hoping against the hope but what’s the harm in taking the chance?
Bharatkumar Raut is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS).