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Pakistan's Post Election Crisis: Rigged Polls and Economic Despair

Columns, World | In the Wake of Controversial Elections, Pakistan Grapples with Democratic Integrity, Economic Instability, and Uncertain Indo-Pak Relations.

By Sanjay Kapoor
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Former Pakistan Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan
Former Pakistan Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement 

Despite the elections to the Pakistan assembly, which took place on February 8, 2024, proving to be a rigged farce, there is no clarity after four days of voting about who will be the nation’s Prime Minister. The reason is that, despite the manipulation, the results took everyone by surprise, especially those who thought they could manipulate democracy to their advantage. It could be a Nawaz Sharif-led coalition government, but before that firms up, there will be many twists and turns.

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In a brave rebuff, the voters first spotted and then backed those independent candidates that were being supported by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The PTI campaign had the support of AI, which made a mockery of Imran’s incarceration as well as the trouble that the army and the Election Commission had created to prevent voters from identifying PTI candidates who were contesting as independents. This was despite the egregious attempts of the army-led establishment to prevent PTI from participating in the elections by jailing its leader, the former cricket captain of Pakistan, Imran Khan, banning the party from contesting, taking away the symbol, and last but not least, putting Khan away in jail for 20 years. Nothing worked, it seems. Pakistan’s daily, The Dawn, in an editorial, castigated the army and said that “the powerful quarters should realise that meddling in civilian affairs is no longer acceptable to voters.”

The army may have been taken aback by the rude shock of these results but will seemingly do everything it takes to prevent the PTI-led independents from coming to power. In other words, they will ensure that Pakistan has a government of their own choosing. All the seats have been declared after a colossal delay. The independent legislators are 93, far ahead of the Pakistan Muslim League's 63 seats. Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) could form the government, being the largest grouping in the assembly, but there are many hurdles. There are also reports of horse-trading, with big money on offer to the independents that contested and won. As they fought on independent tickets, they are easy pickings for one of the two parties—PML(N) and PPP.

Meanwhile, the international community has taken unkindly to the allegedly rigged voting in Pakistan by the Pakistan army and the election commission. Though PTI had accused the West of supporting the ouster of Imran Khan's government, their criticism of the February 8 voting was seen as a corroboration of how horribly the elections were conducted in Pakistan. Many media houses were critical of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) taking so much time to declare results. There was also justifiable criticism of the internet and mobile ban, which was used by the ECP to rationalise the delay. Supporters of PTI claim otherwise. They assert that the delay in counting and declaration of results was used to help Nawaz’s PML(N) and PPP do better. If there was no intervention by the army, many of their candidates would have lost. Some of the results clearly defy logic. At least in one seat, the votes counted are more than the votes polled. Similar errors are available in plenty on social media.

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However, the results have proved that no amount of manipulation by powerful groups can prevent the voters from expressing their wrath. What was also compelling is that the voters could not be swayed by the publicity or fear of the establishment. This was despite the fact that Imran Khan was a poor administrator; he was seen to be a well-meaning person whose heart beats for Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif or the Zardaris do not enjoy this reputation. There is speculation that the army may wheel out a similar coalition government to the kind that replaced Imran Khan’s. Chief of Army Staff, General Asim Munir, would back them, cognizant that the large majority of those who voted in these elections were against the army and the influence they exercised on civilian life.

The Pakistan army is bigger than the country in many ways, and every politician has realised this to their mortification. On the national economy, the Pakistan army struggles to find a policy mix that will keep money bags, foreign investors, and the disadvantaged happy, but that is not working. Before the elections, the army was keen that the civilian government should manage the economy in a manner that they could get an IMF loan so that the economy could scramble out of the deep abyss it had found itself in. These nightmares will begin to haunt them as well as those who have the responsibility to run the state.

Due to the miserable state the economy is in, the people of Pakistan are looking for a magic bullet to sort out the problem. They want the border with Afghanistan to be stabilised and also want a restoration of ties with India. These moves could be the beginning of sorting out the mess, but the BJP government in Delhi has shown no real interest in giving a lifeline to the beleaguered government in Islamabad. To the contrary, it has done enough to rile it further through the abrogation of Article 370 that takes away special powers from Kashmir, as well as bringing in the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Though these policy moves should not concern Pakistan, they reinforce the impression that India does not want to pursue a policy of accommodation to ensure that Islamabad does not support any cross-border adventurism of the Kashmiri militants. After the manner in which the Indian army has retaliated, it is visibly a different country Pakistan has to deal with. The only time India displayed some warmth was when the then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came for Narendra Modi’s swearing-in in 2014. Later, Modi reciprocated his warmth by stopping by at Lahore to break bread. At that time, a breakthrough in ties seemed imminent, but the compulsions of domestic politics prevented Modi from making any big move.

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The big question is, if Nawaz Sharif becomes PM again, will Narendra Modi reach out to him to convey to the deeply suspicious Muslims of the Indian subcontinent that they can trust him to look after their interests and usher in a new age of peace in the region? In the past, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had attempted to build bridges with Pakistan, but was tripped up. Since then, Indian PMs have been careful about initiating talks with their northern neighbour.

The return of Nawaz and the presence of a confident Indian PM in Narendra Modi could see the resumption of ties again between the two countries. If that happens, then this would have major economic spinoffs for a cash-strapped Pakistan and electoral advantages for the BJP in India as it goes for the parliament polls. It could be a win-win for both sides if normalcy is restored at the border. Besides, it would also help in stabilising one side of India’s border as it takes a hard look at China on the other side. There are too many ifs before the Pakistan state acquires stability.