Constitutionally, Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy where elections are to be held for the national and provincial assemblies every five years, except when an assembly is dissolved earlier by the President in consultation with the Prime Minister, due to factors such as the party-in-office having lost the majority in the National Assembly ─ the lower house of Pakistan’s Parliament, and opting for fresh mandate.
The last general elections were held in Pakistan in 2018, in which the PTI overall obtained 155 seats that included reserved seats for women and minorities. A party needed 172 to form the federal government. As the above indicates, the PTI needed 17 seats to form the government on its own. Hence, it made a collation government with small parties such as MQM, PML-Q etc. Interestingly, when the coalition partners withdrew their electoral support in April 2022, the Khan government was over, through a vote of no confidence. Had the PTI obtained 172 plus seats, it could have completed its five-year tenure, though the Prime Minister could be disqualified through other means such as invocation of Articles 62 and 63 or merely being charged for contempt of court, as was the case with the PPP’s Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani in 2012.
Another interesting fact of the 2018 election was that the PTI and the PML-N almost ran equal as far as seats from Punjab for the National Assembly were concerned: the former got 66, whereas the latter won 64. For PTI, it was 30 seats in KP and 16 in Sindh that enabled it to emerge as a leading, but not ruling, party. The PML-N performed poorly in non-Punjab provinces. The same was the case with the PPP, which could only win 6 seats in Punjab as per the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) data made available on its website after the conduct of the said elections.
The last general elections were held in Pakistan in 2018, in which the PTI overall obtained 155 seats that included reserved seats for women and minorities. A party needed 172 to form the federal government.
Both the PML-N and the PPP alleged that the elections were massively rigged in favor of Imran Khan’s PTI by the establishment. In the wake of the 2013 elections, Khan made similar accusations against the PML-N and the PPP, and resorted to protest politics with prolonged sit-ins in Islamabad to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif and family faced the music with the Panama Papers cases. He was ousted through a judicial verdict. However, Sharif pointed fingers at then military top brass as the forces behind his disqualification as Prime Minister and head of the party.
Nonetheless, as time went by, the dynamics of Pakistan’s politics, particularly the civil-military balance, shifted in favor of the Sharifs. The elder Sharif has, over the decades, mastered the game of politics in terms of political negotiations with the relevant stakeholders, particularly the military, which is a key actor in Pakistan’s politics since the mid-1950s. As Khan tussled with the former army chief, General (rtd) Qamar Javed Bajwa and the current DG ISI, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum, Khan’s political rivals capitalized on the tense context in terms of gaining the confidence of the post-Bajwa military establishment headed by Bajwa’s successor General Asim Munir. Little wonder that Nawaz Sharif not only landed back in Pakistan, but also ran scot free in all pending legal cases, which were essentially politically motivated. With no mores cases to face, Nawaz Sharif is now contesting the general election in NA-130 along with his family members, including his daughter, Maryam Nawaz. The majority of the key candidates in the PML-N are Sharif’s close associates who stood with him and the party through the toughest of times.
The PML-N has run a solid election campaign in (central) Punjab, Islamabad and KP. However, the party is electorally vulnerable in Sindh and Balochistan. In the latter, though the PML-N made political commitments with some members of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) ─ which is generally seen as a pro-establishment party. Compared to the 2018 election, this time around, the PML-N has used social media very effectively.
The party, its manifesto and candidates are quite visible on TikTok, Facebook and Twitter. On its part, the PPP has also used social media optimally. Indeed, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari launched the election campaign earlier, compared to other parties. However, Bilawal and the party was bit late when it came to knocking on doors in Punjab. The party has fielded only one ─ and that is Bilawal himself ─ candidate in Lahore, a district with 14 NA seats.
Other than Lahore, the PPP has nominated a couple of very competitive candidates in Lala Musa (Gujrat) and Sargodha, where the Noon family has joined the PPP; previously, they were with the PML-N. However, the PPP’s position seems solid in parts of South Punjab, i.e. DG Khan and Multan.
In KP, the PPP can hope for the best showing in a number of years. In Balochistan, it made a political committee with remaining members of the BAP. Nonetheless, the PPP is the only party that has campaigned effectively in its stronghold, namely, interior Sindh, where the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) is not a big challenger. In addition, the PPP has its vote bank in parts of Karachi, such as Malir. The MQM, on its part, is the party of urban Sindh, with little electoral support in other parts of the country.
Though the PTI cadre is using social media to educate its voter base on these electoral symbols in respective constituencies, an illiterate and elderly voter will still be vulnerable to fumbling the ballot, particularly in the rural areas of the country.
As far as the PTI in concerned, it is already out of the electoral contest as a party. The ECP’s decision to deprive the party of its electoral symbol has undoubtedly affected its electoral weightage with regard to reserved seats. There are 70 reserve seats for the National Assembly - 60 for women and 10 for minority candidates.
PTI candidates are now contesting as independent candidates with different electoral symbols. Though the PTI cadre is using social media to educate its voter base on these electoral symbols in respective constituencies, an illiterate and elderly voter will still be vulnerable to fumbling the ballot, particularly in the rural areas of the country.
Pro-PTI candidates have been harassed and, in some cases arrested, by the police under section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). Key pro-PTI workers are reportedly carrying out an underground campaign, thus, limiting the party’s campaign outreach. Due to gerrymandering, i.e. the process of delimitation, voters in certain constituencies have to travel to another constituency or area to cast vote. These factors are likely to negatively impact pro-PTI candidates’ performance in the elections, despite the party’s high visibility on social media.
The court’s recent verdicts against Khan are not likely to affect his voters, since the base is cultist in nature. However, what one can see through these verdicts is that Imran Khan has lost the support of the military’s top brass and he is not getting out of prison any time soon.
As far as the religious political parties are concerned, Fazal-ur-Rehman’s Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (FUI-F) has been electorally active in KP and parts of Sindh and Balochistan. However, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) seemed very active in terms of campaigning and use of social media, though it is not at par with the PPP or PML-N. The JI has fielded many candidates from all provinces, though its traditional vote bank resides in parts of Karachi and KP. On its part, the ideological rival of JUI-F and JI, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has also fielded many candidates, in fact far more than PPP and PML-N, to National Assembly seats in all parts of the country.
In the 2018 elections, the TLP emerged as a sizeable religious political party, grabbing around 2.2 million votes. However, compared to JI, the TLP seems weak organizationally. Its social media use has been modest and the party is focused on working class Barelvi youth, which the party claims to represent ideologically, as well as electorally. Besides, the newly founded Istehkaam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP) led by Jehangir Tareen is also doing well on social media. The party has managed seat adjustments with the PML-N in some constituencies. However, it is not a coherent party so far in terms of cadre and electoral outreach.
The miniscule leftist parties are dynamic, at least, on social media and will be competitive in a couple of constituencies in Lahore and Islamabad. However, they too face organizational issues.
Last but not the least, the PML-Q seems divided from within. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain is seen as pro-establishment, whereas Pervez Elahi has been bracketed as somebody who conspired with Khan against the current COAS. Hence, the younger Elahi faced the music, and he is now the accused in multiple cases. However, his entry into the electoral process at eleventh hour has raised eyebrows in political circles.
Finally, ethno-nationalist political parties are mainly based in parts of Sindh and Balochistan. The National Party and Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) look more active in electoral terms in this category. Interestingly, even though religious minorities such as Christians have registered political parties with the Election Commission (ECP), they are not visible as political entities on the ground. Comparatively, the miniscule leftist parties are dynamic, at least, on social media and will be competitive in a couple of constituencies in Lahore and Islamabad. However, they too face organizational issues.
Likely electoral outcome
In the preceding sections, various factors ranging from a political party’s relations with the (current) military establishment to campaign strategy, the following is a deductive analysis of the electoral outcome of the 2024 general election in terms of predicted party positions and seats.
To begin with, due to the discussed factors such as the loss of party symbol, restrictions on political gatherings and electoral campaigning, coupled with gerrymandering, the pro-PTI independent candidates are not likely to win massively in, for example, Punjab. The TLP and JI will act as spoilers in Punjab’s constituencies, thus, further impacting the pro-PTI independent candidates. However, in certain constituencies in Central Punjab, i.e. Lahore’s NA-128, Nankana Sahib’s NA-112, Hafizabad’s NA-67, there is going to be tough competition between PML-N and pro-PTI independent candidates.
Given the electoral mobility of the (urban) middle classes, coupled with the youth’s love for Khan, in such tight constituencies, the pro-PTI independents can turn the tables. Non-PTI independents also can win in constituencies with close competition. Thus, the independent candidates are, by and large, likely to grab between 30-40 National Assembly seats in the entire country. The share of pro-PTI independents could be between 25-30.
However, due to the PML-N’s effective campaign in central Punjab, coupled with it being perceived as the party carrying the establishment’s blessings this time around, a sizeable chunk of voters, those above 45 in particular - merchants, traders, and small business owners - are very likely to poll for the PML-N.
The TLP and JI will act as spoilers in Punjab’s constituencies, thus, further impacting the pro-PTI independent candidates. However, in certain consciences in Central Punjab, i.e. Lahore’s NA-128, Nankana Sahib’s NA-112, Hafizabad’s NA-67, there is going to be tough competition between PML-N and pro-PTI independent candidates.
Out of the 18 districts of Central Punjab - Lahore, Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Sahiwal division - the PML-N is likely to grab 60 plus seats of the total 71 seats. In addition, the PML-N will secure a few seats in South Punjab. Perhaps, none in Sindh.
However, the N-League can also win four to five seats in KP. The party could possibly win a couple of seats in Balochistan on its own too. In Islamabad, the PML-N candidates seem in good shape compared to the ‘new faces’ introduced by the PTI in terms of independent candidates. The PML-N is likely to win at least two seats in Islamabad, too. Hence, the PML-N is likely to win between 80-90 seats for the National Assembly. With reserved seats, its total haul could be around 120 seats, thus, short of the 169 needed to form a government.
The PPP is very likely to win around 40 seats from Sindh, five to eight from Punjab and a couple from KP and Balochistan. Overall, the PPP is likely win to around 50-55 seats in total. As far as the smaller parties are concerned, the PML-Q (Shujaat group) is likely to win three to four seats. The MQM is likely to win four to six seats since it is a sectionalist party concentrated in urban Sindh, where the PPP and JI would be tough challengers. The JI is likely to win three to four seats overall, and the JUI-F can win between 12-15 seats from KP and Balochistan.
Out of the 18 districts of Central Punjab - Lahore, Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Sahiwal division - the PML-N is likely to grab 60 plus seats of the total 71 seats.
The minnows, such as Mustafa Kamal, could hardly win a seat on their own. However, Pervez Khattak’s PTI-P is also not likely to shock Imran Khan’s PTI. The former will hardly manage three to four seats.
However, the ANP is likely to win around five to eight seats due to its sustained campaign, despite threats. Similarly, the ethnonationalist parties are likely to win a couple of seats from Balochistan. BAP may not win as it did the last time, because its members have sympathised with both the PPP and the PML-N.
As far the TLP is concerned, its vote bank is likely to go up, to around 3 million votes. However, it is likely to act as a spoiler. Finally, Tareen’s IPP is likely to win three to four seats on its own and could rely on independents to increase it overall weightage in the final electoral calculus.
Heading to a coalition government
In view of the foregoing, none of the political parties is likely to gain a simple majority in the National Assembly. However, based on my calculations, the PML-N is likely to emerge as a leading party, but falling short of the 169 seats needed to be a ruling party. To this end, the PML-N will need coalition partners, and the Sharifs will be quite comfortable with the JUI-F, MQM, GDA, PML-Q (Shujaat) and, above all, Tareen’s IPP. Hence, Pakistan is very likely to be governed by another coalition government at the federal level. The pro-PTI independent may not join any of the mainstream parties under normal circumstances. However, if coerced or persuaded, some will join other parties like the IPP.
The PML-N is likely to win between 80-90 seats for the National Assembly. With reserved seats, its total haul could be around 120 seats, thus, short of the 169 needed to form a government.
Nonetheless, if the above parties win as predicted, the pro-PTI independents may not be needed. Importantly, given the PPP’s tough stance on the PML-N in the election campaign, the former is not likely to sit with the latter in the federal cabinet. Bilawal is perhaps gearing up to be the leader of the opposition. The pro-PTI independents may join him as well.
Since the PML-N is predicted to be the leading party, the Prime Ministerial candidate is going to be fielded from within the party. The IPP plus faction will also press for this slot, and will thus lead to negotiations on the distribution of federal portfolios. So, if the PM is from the PML-N — be that the elder or younger Sharif — other top positions would go to the coalition partners.
A coalition government can work in tandem too. We have various examples, even as close as India. Even the previous coalition government worked well for more than three and a half years. Hence, until the political parties openly tussle with the military establishment, the establishment is unlikely to disturb, if not disrupt, the parliamentary dispensation.
The economy is in doldrums and Pakistani society is internally divided - ethnically and socioeconomically. What Pakistan needs the most is political stability. This must be the top priority of the civil-military ruling elite.