Pakistan’s elections have already been eventful — with one party leader’s arrest, another’s stunning return from exile, and at least nine deaths on Election Day — but how much of a change they will truly bring about remains to be seen.
Pakistan has been in political, economic, and security turmoil for years now. Between former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s expulsion from his post in 2022, the country’s record inflation and unemployment, as well as a spike in violent insurgency, Pakistan is struggling to regain a sense of stability and equilibrium, not to mention security.
Regional issues have also led to rising political temperatures. Pakistan and India are typically, though not always, engaged in some form of cross-border dispute, which becomes a serious international problem when tensions heat up between the two nuclear-armed nations. And in the post-September 11, 2001, American landscape, Pakistan has been a problematic ally, with its intelligence services benefiting from US support and collaboration while also fostering the Taliban insurgency that enabled Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and contributed to instability within Pakistan.
That particular security concern, as well as the return of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the rise of the Islamic State Khorasan Province in recent years, has renewed the insurgencies, creating an atmosphere that even stable governments would be hard-pressed to quell.
All of that has been a recipe for dissatisfaction. But if widespread anger leads to a new prime minister, that change may actually only deepen the status quo. Pakistan, though generally considered a democracy, has a hybrid regime in which leadership changes — sometimes violently — between civilian leaders who’ve been elected (in sometimes disputed contests) and unelected military officials, who often use the processes of democracy to entrench their power. That’s certainly believed to be the case this time around, as former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seems poised for a comeback supported by the powerful military and enabled through the justice system.
“Sharif as a politically weak prime minister will be what the military wants (and that is what it is likely to get),” Madiha Afzal, a fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, told Vox by email. “This will enable the military to keep pressure up on Sharif and keep him weak enough so that he doesn’t assert himself against the military (as he did in the past, leading to him being ousted from the job). This is not a recipe for a strong or stable government.”
Who is — and isn’t — on the ballot, and why that’s contentious
Thursday’s elections were parliamentary, so Pakistanis will be voting for representation in Parliament; the leader of the party (or coalition) with a parliamentary majority will become the new prime minister.
The country’s likely next leader — it’s almost a fait accompli — was an unlikely name until November. Nawaz Sharif, a 74-year-old politician who’s been prime minister three times before but has never completed a term, has returned from self-imposed exile in the UK to stand in elections as head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party.
Sharif’s ascendance is fairly shocking given that, until recently, he was barred from Pakistani politics for life and had been convicted on corruption charges (which he has denied) stemming from his family’s real estate concerns in London. His daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, was convicted alongside him but has also campaigned for him and is expected to play a role in any future government the PLM-N could form, along with Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s younger brother and the former interim prime minister following Khan’s ouster.
Nawaz Sharif seems to have been able to mend his relationship with the military — Pakistan’s ultimate political arbiter — likely due to his brother’s friendly ties with the institution, according to Reuters. That redounds to both the Sharif family’s benefit and the military’s — but not necessarily to the Pakistani people’s.
First of all, the political process is already undermined, due to “a climate of deep political polarization and a military crackdown on former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party,” International Crisis Group’s Deputy Asia Director Huong Le Thu told Vox in an email. And efforts to ensure a fair vote have been complicated by the courts, Afzal said: “Most damaging has been the decision to strip the PTI [Khan’s party] of its election symbol, meaning that the party is not actually on the ballot, and its candidates have to run as independents, making it enormously difficult for voters to identify them.”
Though the PML-N has a fairly good reputation for delivering economic growth and investing in infrastructure projects, governments lacking internal legitimacy often trigger violent unrest and instability — and Khan’s ouster and subsequent arrests have already driven violence over the past two years.
That violence comes with economic consequences. Foreign direct investment in Pakistan is already dismally low — in recent years, some $2 billion per year or less — and the value of annual imports outweighs what it earns from exports. Multilateral lending institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund often tie lending or debt renegotiation to democratic and economic reforms, so it could be more difficult for Pakistan to renegotiate its debt and bring in foreign investment should Nawaz Sharif win.
The Sharif political dynasty is not the only one at play in this election; also standing is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Benazir Bhutto — Pakistan’s first woman prime minister, who was assassinated in 2007 — and former President Asif Ali Zardari. Bhutto Zardari is also the grandson of former president and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Bhutto Zardari, though part of an old Pakistani political family, is gearing his campaign toward younger voters and focusing on a platform that proposes economic change centered on climate change, The Hindu reported recently. Zardari is hoping to capture votes from the charismatic, wildly popular, and embattled Khan, who is campaigning for the PTI from prison, where he is serving multiple sentences.
Pakistan’s Parliament initially ousted Khan from office in 2022, in a vote of no confidence after he began pushing back against the military leadership. But it was his arrest last year on corruption charges that ignited his followers, sending them out in droves to cheer him on at his rallies despite crackdowns on the gatherings and more charges incurred against Khan, including for blasphemy and terrorism, as well as against his supporters and other members of his party.
Sharif’s win seems all but inevitable at this point, owing in part to his strong base of support in the populous Punjab province, as well as reports of intimidation and violence against PTI supporters at the polls, the New York Times reported.
“February 8th election, in the eyes of the impartial and unbiased observer, appears not as an election, but rather as a selection of a predetermined candidate [Sharif],” Ershad Mahmud, an independent analyst and commentator who writes for the Pakistani outlet The News, told Vox in an email.
It’s difficult to overstate how important the military is to Pakistan’s politics, and a series of military coups has plagued Pakistan’s democracy. Though there are competitive elections and active political parties, the military is the ultimate power — a dynamic which both the Pakistani people and the international community have tacitly accepted as the status quo.
“To the extent that people try to challenge them, that challenge tends to be weak,” Asfandyar Mir, senior expert in the South Asia program at the US Institute of Peace, told Vox. Khan’s and Sharif’s leadership attests to that phenomenon: Once they began to push back against the will of the military, those civilian leaders were no longer safe in their positions.
Pakistan’s other institutions, primarily the judiciary, reinforce that dynamic, Afzal told Vox.
“In the run-up to the election, Pakistan’s judiciary has functioned almost like an accessory to the military establishment — deciding cases as if on cue (as it has in the past),” she said. “It overturned cases against Sharif, clearing the way for his election, and sentenced Khan in three separate cases the week prior to the election, barring him from the political arena.”
Pakistanis are left with few real choices
Even though Thursday’s election featured multiple candidates and parties, it’s hard to argue that it represents actual choice. “There was some hope that this [hybrid regime] would go down over time and that the military’s role and influence in politics would be reduced. That just hasn’t happened,” Mir said.
Even with Khan and his party able to openly and fairly contest, Pakistanis were faced with an unappealing choice: a populist, ineffective leader surrounded by a cloud of corruption charges who has used his tribulations to enhance his own image as a political martyr despite the violence and chaos that entailed, or a continued unraveling of the nation’s weak democracy under a military-aligned candidate.
Regardless of the outcomes in Thursday’s election, serious existential problems remain, and it’s not clear that any of the potential leaders can get Pakistan out of the multiple overlapping crises in which it finds itself.
Sharif may prove more willing to work with India to secure peace, but that depends on the leadership in India, which has proven to be increasingly nationalistic and more willing to take a hard stance against Pakistan, driven especially by India’s claims over the territory of Kashmir in 2019. And insurgency fostered by the Taliban is unlikely to stop, as it has very strong backing from the Taliban regime, Mir said.
“In terms of the parties’ plans to tackle Pakistan’s economic and security problems, there is not much difference,” Afzal said. “The thing is, we have seen all these parties (and candidates) holding power before, and they did not fundamentally change the trajectory of the country, and especially not its economy.”