Pakistani elections marred by rigging and violence

04/04/2024

Zoha Nadeem explores the current electoral situation in Pakistan and what it means for democracy in the troubled nation.

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By Zoha Nadeem

Shehbaz Sharif, belonging to the Pakistan Muslim League Party (PML-N), has achieved success in this year’s General Elections, becoming Prime Minister of Pakistan for the second time. The announcement of his win comes weeks after the votes were casted by the people, prompting concerns of rigging. The elections, which were held on 8 February 2024, were filled with political unrest and violence, due to concerns regarding the reliability of the results.
Sharif previously became PM in August 2022, after his predecessor, Imran Khan of Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaf (PTI), was ousted from parliament by losing a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly. Khan’s loyal supporters claimed this was a ploy by PML-N and the military, in attempts to kick Khan out of politics. PML-N, backed by the powerful military, has been dominating Pakistan's politics for over 30 years, with Shehbaz Sharif’s brother, Nawaz Sharif, having served as PM for over nine years across three tenures. Nawaz Sharif was jailed for 10 years in 2018, due to corruption charges. In 2019, he went to London for medical treatment on bail; he then returned to Pakistan in 2023, after four years of exile.
Accusations of the Sharif brothers and their party changing the election’s results have stemmed after the voting count was abruptly halted during the night of the elections, after mobile and internet services were shut down. The reason for this was said to be the ‘deteriorating security situation’ across the country; however, Khan’s supporters believed it was so that the results of the elections could be changed.
Imran khan has had a rough few years in politics. Although he is one of the most popular personalities in Pakistan since his cricketing days, Khan has faced many challenges in the world of politics. He won the General Elections in 2018, but lost his leadership in a no-confidence vote in 2022, including a ban from politics for 5 years by the Supreme Court. Moreover, in the 2024 elections, PTI was prohibited from using its iconic cricket bat electoral symbol. The use of electoral symbols are integral in identifying candidates, with around 40% of people in Pakistan unable to read or write. Members of PTI were also forced to stand as independent candidates. These restrictions were seen to be put in an attempt to lower Khan’s support in this year's elections, according to the public, and with Khan currently in jail due to corruption charges, it seemed like everything went in Shehbaz Sharif’s favour.
Despite attempts to stop Khan’s return to power, initial voting results on the day of the elections on television broadcasts showed PTI-backed independent candidates with 127/336 seats, ahead of PML-N, who had 75 seats, and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), who had 54 seats. Days later, however, it was announced that PTI-backed independent candidates had a total of 93 seats. At least 169 seats are needed to form a government, but with no party having a majority, PML-N and PPP joined forces, forming a coalition. Shehbaz Sharif became the new Prime Minister and PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari, ex-Prime Minister and husband of assassinated ex-PM Benazir Bhutto, became the President of Pakistan.
Elections that are believed to be manipulated before they even began have caused turmoil and distress amongst the people of Pakistan. At least 28 people were killed in a bomb blast in Balochistan the day before the elections took place, and the mobile and internet services being suspended added to the suspicion of Sharif and his military allies influencing the results of the 2024 elections. People have been marching the streets of Pakistan, demanding their democratic right to vote to choose their Prime Minister is respected. The UK, US and EU have also voiced concerns over the credibility of this year’s elections, urging a probe into reported irregularities. The UN human rights office condemned violence against political parties and candidates. It expressed its worry over the “pattern of harassment, arrests and prolonged detentions of leaders and supporters” of Khan’s party. British Foreign Minister David Cameron’s statement noted “serious concerns raised about the fairness and lack of inclusivity of the elections.”
Nevertheless, Sharif has declared his victory. His government, however, faces daunting challenges; Pakistan is under an unprecedented economic crisis, regular power cuts, rising levels of poverty and a challenging relationship with neighbouring Taliban-run Afghanistan. In a country where no Prime Minister has completed a five-year term in its history, it doesn’t seem impossible for the political war between Sharif and Khan to escalate into something much greater. Will Sharif be able to prove he is worthy of his position, or will Khan and his devoted followers find a way to give back Khan the seat that they feel he rightly deserves?