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Election turmoil leaves Pakistan facing weak and unpopular coalition | Pakistan

It was mid-afternoon on Pakistan’s election day, sources say, when military intelligence began to realise that things on the ground were not going as planned.

Mobile services, including the internet, had been suspended across the country on the pretext of security issues. Those aware of the decision-making said the real reason was to keep voter turnout low, making the results much easier for Pakistan’s powerful military to “manage” and, most importantly, keep supporters of the former prime minister Imran Khan away from the ballot box.

The strategy failed. With Khan behind bars, having received three separate jail sentences of more than 10 years the week before, sympathy for him was running at an all-time high. So too was anger at Pakistan’s military and what many viewed as its increasingly brazen attempts to decide the election outcome before any votes were cast.

Khan’s party defied the odds and won the largest number of seats.

His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was largely banned from physical campaigning by police, so had instead turned – highly effectively – to Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and Instagram to rally supporters. PTI also took action in the days before the internet shutdown, providing tools and information so people knew exactly who their PTI candidate was and where to find their polling station.

As voting opened on Thursday morning, tens of millions of PTI supporters, including large swathes of the 24 million first-time voters, left their homes with the purpose of casting a ballot for Khan – and against the military.

Imran Khan claims party election victory in AI message – video

The same cannot be said for the voter base of Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. A three-time former prime minister toppled each time after going head-to-head with the military establishment, his return to Pakistan after three years of exile was seen to be the result of a backroom deal with the military he had so avidly criticised. After turning against Khan, their former protege, military leaders are said to have assured Sharif they would make him Pakistan’s next prime minister.

The public response to Sharif was lukewarm. He had little to say to engage voters, and was barely out on the campaign trail. Resentment grew over PML-N’s close alignment with the military and the fact Sharif appeared to assume his election victory was a given. The need for PML-N supporters to vote on polling day consequently felt diminished.

It was clear as the first results began to roll in that Pakistan was seeing a PTI landslide few had believed possible; and it was only then, say sources, that the senior military leadership fully realised what they had on their hands.

Pakistan’s electoral commission has denied allegations that ballot rigging was attempted at that point; if it was, it was not enough to manage the scale of PTI support, particularly in Punjab, a province that had once been a Sharif stronghold. Sharif was forced to cancel the victory speech he had written beforehand and retreated to his family home in Lahore.

After a lengthy delay during which the UK foreign secretary voiced concern over “significant delays to the reporting of results and claims of irregularities in the counting process”, by late on Friday it became clear that candidates backed by Khan’s party (an election commission ruling had forced PTI candidates to run as independents) had defied the Pakistani establishment to win the most parliamentary seats.

While the result appeared to be a shock, it was not a surprise to those on the ground. Like most populists, Khan thrives best in opposition and his toppling from power in 2022 after falling out with the military allowed him to distance himself from the failings of his government and push an anti-establishment narrative at a time when Pakistanis are suffering a catastrophic economic crisis.

Pakistan’s ex-PM Nawaz Sharif says he will seek coalition government after trailing rival – video

The harder the military cracked down on Khan, the more he could present himself as a political martyr. When he was stopped from holding rallies, he made speeches on YouTube criticising the military and dynastic political elite, and his popularity soared. His arrest in August, on charges widely seen as trumped up to stop him running in the election, only increased sympathy for his plight. The fact that his rise to power was made possible by military patronage was long forgotten.

Yet, Sharif’s PML-N appears poised to form the government, albeit in a weak coalition that is proving difficult to organise.

The Pakistan People’s party (PPP), which had been widely expected to toe the military line and join forces with PML-N to form the government, has instead been resistant.

The PPP’s chair, Bilawal Bhutto – son of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who was jailed for standing up to the military and who was assassinated in 2007 – is said to be fearful of entering into a coalition seen as overruling the mandate of the people and that could discredit his party’s chances in future elections.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Bhutto said the party would “not be part of the government” but would give backing to the formation of a government for “stability”.

His statement was widely taken to mean the PPP would appease the military and support PML-N to take the prime ministerial role and key ministries but would keep its distance from a formal coalition.

Given the euphoria that greeted PTI’s victory, and widespread anger towards the Sharifs and the Bhuttos, a PML-led government, with PPP backing to come to power, is unlikely to find much support or sense of legitimacy among the electorate. To many, this marriage of convenience between two dynastic parties – overriding the mandate of the people – is exactly the opposite of what they voted for and has proved just how illegitimate Pakistan’s democracy is, given the controlling hand of the military.

Any government without public support will face a major challenge to implement the kind of stringent reforms that are needed for Pakistan to get out of its economic black hole, avoid bankruptcy and bring down sky-high inflation.

Meanwhile, the PTI will probably be forming the opposition – eventually, some believe, with a freed Khan at its helm: certainly, the longer they have kept him in jail, the more popular he has become. Across its vast social media operation, PTI is likely to continue to stir up anti-military sentiment.

All this contributes to a continuing situation of political and economic instability for Pakistan at a time when the country needs just the opposite. To worsen matters, Islamist militancy along its border with Afghanistan is uncontrollably on the rise.

“Pakistan is on a downward spiral,” said Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, an associate professor of political economy at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. “This will be an unpopular government, hamstrung by very legitimate allegations that it has been selected rather than elected and without any strategy of how to deal with the economic and structural problems this country faces. I doubt they will last very long.”

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