Pakistan's Elections Show the Country Is in for a Tough 2024

February 16, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: PakistanImran KhanElectionsIMFMilitary

Pakistan's Elections Show the Country Is in for a Tough 2024

Given that no prime minister has ever completed their term in Pakistan’s 75-year history, I suspect the odds are poor that Shehbaz Sharif will break that tradition.

Pakistan’s elections on 8 February were meant to bring stability to the country after almost two years of turmoil but the fraudulent nature of the polls has deepened political divisions. It will also bring more instability to a nuclear-armed, 240-million-strong country already shaky at best in a critically important geostrategic region.

In the months leading up to the long-awaited elections, the judiciary and the military pursued a dual-track strategy: ensure that the highly popular former prime minister, Imran Khan, is never able to run for political office again and reinvigorate the political fortunes of Nawaz Sharif, the three-time former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

Following his loss of power in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in April 2022, Khan was relentlessly pursued by the judiciary which eventually handed him three sentences for corruption, leaking state secrets and an illegal marriage, for a total of 24 years. He was barred from politics and sent to jail. His Pakistan Justice Movement (PTI) was disbanded, its electoral symbol (the cricket bat) outlawed, and its members banned from running as PTI members.

Nawaz Sharif—a convicted corrupt politician who’s had an ambivalent relationship with the army for 40 years, was brought back from a four-year self-exile in London as an alternative to Khan. Soon after Nawaz’s return to Pakistan the corruption charges he faced were dropped and his life ban from politics was lifted. The path was now clear for his smooth return to power. However, what was meant to be a walk in the park for Nawaz and the PML(N) turned out very differently on election day. The millions of pro-Imran Khan supporters were not interested in singing off the scoresheet handed over by the army.

Even with all the measures taken to ensure there was no level playing field, and the ballot stuffing at a number of polling stations, the PML(N), was only able to win the second-largest number of seats (75). Instead, the former PTI members—running as independents—won the largest number of seats, 93 of the 266 up for grabs. The independents’ total seats could increase as they are contesting the result of over a dozen others they claim have been stolen from them. Nevertheless, Nawaz declared victory, and will try—with great difficulty, to form a coalition government with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the late Benazir Bhutto. The only bond between the PML(N) and the PPP is that their hatred of each other is slightly less than their hatred of the PTI.

International reaction to these elections, including from the US, the UK, and the EU, was negative, with several countries calling for investigations into the allegations of vote-tempering and pre-poll obstructions. The Australian government also made it clear that it was concerned that ‘the Pakistani people were restricted in their choice, since not all political parties were allowed to contest these elections’.

Notwithstanding the evidence to the contrary, much of it posted on social media platforms even though mobile internet connections were restricted, the Chief of Army Staff, General Asim Munir, commended the Electoral Commission for running such a successful election and stressed the significance of free and unhindered participation by Pakistani people in exercising their right to vote. Similarly, the caretaker prime minister, Anwaarul Haq Kakar, believed that the ‘nation had accepted the results’ and the country needed to move on. Moreover, he brushed aside international criticism of the elections as ‘not that big a deal’.

Despite the compromised nature of these polls, a PML(N)-led coalition government is the most likely—but not certain—outcome of the elections. According to the latest reports, it would be led by Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s younger brother who was prime minister after Khan was ousted in April 2022. But the real power will still be held behind the scenes by Nawaz Sharif. Given the fragility of the coalition, which will include smaller parties and non-PTI-leaning independents, this will be a weak government with little legitimacy. This is unfortunate given that whoever is prime minister will have to make some particularly difficult decisions on the economy, handle adroitly the country’s foreign relations, and manage a growing terrorist threat.

Pakistan is an economic mess, with 40% of the population living under the poverty line, an inflation rate that has hit 30%, a rupee whose value has halved in 10 years, and barely enough foreign exchange to cover the cost of imports for a month or so. The country avoided economic meltdown in August 2023 by securing a standby arrangement of US$3 billion with the IMF. However, this bailout runs out in March and a new one—the 24th in Pakistan’s history—will need to be negotiated. The IMF will undoubtedly demand that the government implement more austerity measures, including continuing to reduce subsidies on essential commodities. Imposing draconian economic measures on an already struggling population will not be easy, particularly given Nawaz’s lack of popular support. We can expect serious social unrest down the road.

A Shehbaz-led government will also have to deal with the growing terrorist threat, mainly but not solely from the Afghanistan-based Pakistan Taliban (TTP), which has continued to increase since the Taliban took over in neighboring Afghanistan in August 2021. Pakistan has repeatedly demanded that the Taliban government of Afghanistan cease to support the TTP. But the Taliban isn’t about to turn on the TTP, an organization with which it has deep ideological, operational, historical and tribal links. Kabul also knows that the Pakistani military doesn’t want to escalate this issue by pursuing the TTP into Afghan territory. Moreover, given Pakistan’s poor fiscal position, it cannot afford another expensive military operation. Accordingly, Pakistan-Afghan relations will probably continue to be frozen, and the scourge of terrorism to fester.

This will not be well received by the leaders in Beijing who persistently press Pakistan to do more against the terrorists roaming the countryside regularly killing Chinese workers and officials working on the US$60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).  Pakistan already has some 10,000 security personnel dedicated solely to the protection of Chinese interests in Pakistan. Still, relations with China will continue on an even keel or even deepen. It was after all under Nawaz’s third stint (2013-2018), that CPEC started.

We can expect Indo-Pakistan relations to possibly improve. The personal dynamics between Nawaz and Indian PM Narendra Modi have been good in the past. Nawaz attended Modi’s 2014 inauguration and Modi visited Nawaz in Lahore in December 2015—the first visit by an Indian leader in more than a decade. But while Nawaz would probably be interested in improving relations with Delhi, it was the perception that he was warming up too much to the Indians when he was in power which critically contributed to the military orchestrating his downfall in 2017. Shehbaz, under the guidance of Nawaz, is unlikely to make the same mistake.

Despite Washington’s public criticism of Pakistan’s seriously flawed election, the Biden administration is committed to ‘strengthening its security cooperation’ with Islamabad regardless of who eventually becomes prime minister. Pakistan continues to be a valuable regional partner, being in a unique position to monitor developments in Afghanistan. Finally, whilst Washington may have had issues with the election process, it will absolutely not miss Imran Khan, who repeatedly accused the US of having been instrumental, with the help of Pakistan’s military, in his downfall in April 2022.  Secretary Blinken’s meeting with General Asim Munir—the man who effectively runs Pakistan, in Washington only a few weeks before the elections only reinforced this common perception in Pakistan. However, given Munir’s massive miscalculation on the elections, his days may well be numbered.

How long the next prime minister will last in office is anyone’s guess, but given that no prime minister has ever completed their term in Pakistan’s 75-year history, I suspect the odds are poor that Shehbaz Sharif will break that tradition.

Claude Rakisits is a visiting research fellow at the Brussels-based Centre for Security, Defence and Strategy (CSDS). He has followed Pakistan politics for 40 years. His X call is @ClaudeRakisits.

This article was first published by The Australian Strategic Policy Institute.