Pakistan's parliamentary elections ended in a surprise upset, which could make the transition to the next government a messy one, and could leave the winners' politicians without real governing power.
Backed by Pakistan's powerful and influential military establishment, the PML-N was expected to easily win last Thursday's elections, returning controversial former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his old post. However, voters delivered a stunning victory for politicians allied with jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.
But this does not mean that Khan will be the next prime minister, or even that his party will lead the next government.
PTI was essentially banned from nominating candidates after the Supreme Court ruled that its electoral symbol could not be used on ballot papers; Instead, several PTI politicians ran as independents. Independent candidates, most of them linked to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), won 92 seats in the Pakistani parliament – more than any of the other major parties. This would usually give the party the upper hand in forming the government and choosing the prime minister. But since independents are not part of any party, the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party, both headed by members of ruling political families, are in talks to form a coalition to lead the next government.
In practical terms, this may not lead to massive changes in daily life. None of the major parties has convincing or cogent plans to deal with the economic and security problems plaguing Pakistan.
“In terms of the two parties’ plans to address Pakistan’s economic and security problems, there is not much difference,” Madiha Afzal, a fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, told Vox via email. “The thing is, we have seen all these parties (and candidates) holding power before, and they have not fundamentally changed the course of the country, especially its economy.”
Thus, it is best to understand the Pakistanis' vote as a strong rebuke of the political establishment and the military force that supports it, rather than an endorsement of a political agenda.
Who will lead Pakistan now?
Even if PTI manages to form the next government, Khan will not be able to be the next prime minister; He was banned from holding elected office for 10 years due to his criminal conviction.
The Pakistani parliament will have to form a coalition government, which is most likely Coalition of the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples PartyWith Shehbaz Sharif, brother of PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, assuming the position of Prime Minister.
“Most people — even those who follow Pakistani politics closely — were surprised by what happened on February 8, and that doesn't just include the number of people who came out to vote” in what was expected to be a very low-key election, said Nilofar Siddiqui, associate professor of science. politics and international affairs at the State University of New York at Albany, told Vox in an interview.
The support for PTI politicians was particularly surprising given the numerous efforts to prevent such a victory, including jailing some politicians before the election and banning the party from using their election symbol – the cricket bat, a reference to Khan's past as a cricket star – on ballot papers. .
Nawaz, the elder Sharif, had been prime minister three times before, starting in the 1990s; However, he never served his full term and went into exile twice. But during his last term, starting in 2013, he was able to stabilize the economy and secure infrastructure investment from China — a move that is now backfiring as Pakistan, like many other poor countries indebted to China, finds the bill coming due. .
Sharif was also unsuccessful in managing Pakistan's very serious security concerns, which stemmed mostly from extremism incited in neighboring Afghanistan, but also from local insurgencies and from Islamic State Khorasan, the Sunni extremist group operating in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There is a possibility that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 35-year-old leader of the Pakistan People's Party, will be elected prime minister, especially if independent politicians and those from smaller parties support the choice. “Our party wants Bilawal as prime minister,” Faisal Karim Kundi, a Pakistan People’s Party official, said in an interview. Interview on Pakistan's Geo TV channelAs reported by Reuters. “No one can form a government without us.”
Bhutto Zardari is the son of Benazir Bhutto – Pakistan's first female prime minister, who was assassinated in 2007 – and former President Asif Ali Zardari. Bhutto Zardari is also the grandson of the former president and prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Although Bhutto Zardari belonged to an ancient Pakistani political family, she directed her campaign towards young voters and focused on a program proposing economic change centered around climate change.
What does this say about democracy in Pakistan?
The coming weeks are likely to be tense as Pakistan's parliament attempts to form a government and PTI supporters show their loyalty – and express their frustration with the political and military establishment.
“We can think of this vote as a combination of being pro-PTI in nature; “It should also be seen as inherently anti-incumbent,” Siddiqi said. That is, rejecting politics as usual.
This means rejecting the hybrid nature of Pakistani politics, which has democratic systems such as elections and the judiciary, but is more or less subject to the direction of the military establishment. Pakistani democracy has been plagued by a series of military coups, and despite competitive elections and active political parties, it is the ultimate power—a dynamic witnessed by both Khan and Sharif when their falling out with the military destroyed their political careers (although Sharif appeared to able to do so). Reforming his relationship with the army before the elections.
Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert in the South Asia Program at the US Institute of Peace, told Vox that the regime has stifled the efforts of democratically elected leaders. “Many institutional actors have accepted the boundaries within which they need to remain…and this opens up political space for the military to enjoy certain privileges in the Pakistani political system,” he told Fox.
Until now, the Pakistani people and the international community have largely accepted this as the status quo. However, Khan's supporters have come to see him as an outsider fighting corruption, someone outside the political establishment who understands their problems. That is why their support for PTI politicians represents a rejection of politics as usual.
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