DPG Policy Brief

Polarisation at the Polls: Pakistan's Fragmented Election Outcome

Pakistan went to the polls on February 8, 2024 to vote in the national and provincial elections amidst an internet and mobile phone blackout. The results, announced after an unprecedented three-day delay, showed that independent candidates, mostly affiliated with Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), had won 102 seats. The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz party (PML-N), headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, came in second with 73 seats, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won 54 seats. 

In the run-up to the elections, there had been a concerted effort by the Pakistan Army and the interim government to undermine the credibility of Imran Khan and the PTI. Imran was jailed and barred from standing for elections. He was hit with multiple sentences, ranging from three to 14 years in prison, the verdict in three cases against him coming less than ten days before the elections.

Almost the entire PTI leadership was arrested, and the party was stripped of its cricket bat symbol. Consequently, all PTI candidates fought the elections as independents, with individual electoral symbols.

In contrast, the Army threw its weight behind Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan after a four-year self-imposed exile in London. The courts quickly overturned past convictions against him, paving the way for his return to active politics.

The election results show that Imran Khan remains Pakistan's most popular leader. The independents backed by the PTI do not have the majority to form the government and are likely to play a disruptive role, persisting with the claim that the elections were stolen by widespread poll rigging.

The PML-N and the PPP have been in talks to form a coalition government, but considerable challenges exist. The PPP has decided not to join the government but to provide external support to PML-N, which in turn has put forward Shehbaz Sharif’s name for the post of Prime Minister.

Even if a fragile coalition is stitched together, its legitimacy will always be in doubt, and it will struggle to make politically sensitive decisions, particularly with regard to the difficult economic situation. The country is deeply polarised, which is also reflected in the results of the provincial assemblies. The PPP will be in power in Sind, the PTI in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and the PML-N in Punjab.

The elections have shown the Pakistan Army's dismal failure to politically engineer Nawaz's victory, and the people have delivered a stinging response in rejecting the military's proxies. It is too early to say whether this marks a significant shift in the Army's domination of the political landscape, but a message has been conveyed that the military's interference is creating a broken political system that does no good for the country.

Regarding India-Pakistan relations, there would be little incentive for the Indian side to engage with a weak Pakistani coalition government beset with internal problems. However, things may change after the 2024 Indian general elections, especially if there is a level of political stability in Pakistan.

To read this Policy Brief Vol. IX, Issue 6, please click "Polarisation at the Polls: Pakistan's Fragmented Election Outcome".