The general elections of 2024 are perhaps the most critical in the history of the nation for a number of reasons. Pakistan today is steeped in economic, social and political challenges that need to be solved immediately – but this will not be possible except when a strong and stable government is in power, that has the support of the people and the powerful establishment. Pakistan is heavily dependent on foreign assistance and the need of the hour is to stabilise socially and politically, so that international investors and lenders can feel confident and safe about their investments.
On the 8th of February, the nation went to polls for the national and the four provincial assemblies. More than 120 million registered voters exercised their constitutional right to elect the next government. 18,000 candidates competed for 336 National Assembly seats and 749 Provincial Assembly seats. These seats will be filled through a combination of first-past-the-post elections for single-member constituencies as well as the allocation of reserved seats for women and non-Muslims through proportional representation.
These elections come at a critical time for Pakistan, as it faces significant economic, security, and environmental challenges that the elected leaders will be responsible for addressing in the coming years. The entire exercise of the general elections was concluded without any major hiccough or obstacle. There were some reports about delays in announcement of results due to suspension of internet and telephone services, and some delays in the polling process and a few violations of rules and the election code of conduct. In spite of all the complaints, no major acts of violence was reported and voting in almost all the constituencies was completed smoothly.
The elections of 8th February 2024 will go down in history as one of numerous surprises and major upsets of Pakistan’s political landscape. And all this comes on top of the recent political tensions, bitterness and polarisation in our society. People all over the country show up in huge numbers to vote, and so the turnout was unparalleled in our political history. In most constituencies, it was more than 50% – something never seen before in any election.
The people of Pakistan have voted for democracy but political stability still appears to be a pipe dream
Yet, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) was found guilty of tardiness by delaying the announcement of results. The ECP had very loudly claimed to have set up a new system for announcing results, but the unexplained delays in many constituencies resulted in allegations of poll-rigging, manipulations and foul-play. And the suspension of the mobile networks and the internet created further doubts about the transparency of the entire exercise. The ECP and the caretaker government both faced severe criticism from domestic and foreign observers, and some Western countries have even demanded a thorough investigation into the reported irregularities.
The final result of the polls is that it is a divided mandate and a hung parliament. No single party has the required strength to form a government at the federal level. In the national assembly of 265 constituencies, PTI-supported independent candidates won the maximum seats, numbering 97 – followed by the PML-N with 79 seats and the PTI with 54, whereas the MQM managed 17 seats. PTI-backed candidates swept the polls in the KP province and made an impressive show in the Punjab province. PML-N managed to win in Punjab and the PPP continued their winning streak in Sindh. Ironically all the religious parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the JUI-F and the TLP failed to show any results both at the national and provincial levels.
Both the PML-N and the PTI are now claiming to be the winners and the single largest party in parliament but neither has a simple majority to form a government on their own. The formation of a government at the federal level is now a thorny exercise that will result in some very hard bargaining – and like always, a lot of horse-trading, which has been a usual political tradition in the past.
The people of Pakistan have voted for democracy but political stability still appears to be a pipe dream. The PML-N has a tough task to form a government, even given their past election alliances with the smaller parties. The IPP and the JUI-F don’t have much to offer in the form of winners, and that leaves the MQM in a better bargaining position with the PML-N. On the other hand, the PTI-backed independent winners have a difficult choice to remain loyal to the PTI, because they will now get lucrative offers from the PML-N and the PPP to switch loyalties. The PPP cannot form a government just by netting some independents – and so their best chance is to form a coalition with the PML-N. The allocation of the 70 reserved seats will play a major role, as these are distributed on the basis of the number of seats won, and the PTI will suffer for not being recognised as a political party. So, the reserved minority and women’s seats will be dished out to the other parties, thus increasing their numbers in the national assembly.
The new government will have to develop close and friendly relations with the powerful establishment and remain on the same page in matters of governance, economy, investments and foreign relations
It appears now that the next federal government is going to be a weak coalition of several parties. This government will face numerous daunting challenges and this weak arrangement will not be able to bring about the wide-ranging economic reforms that are desperately needed to put the country on the path of sustainable growth and investment. The government will have to deal with an economy still in the ICU, rising inflation, skyrocketing cost of living, terrorism and hostile neighbours on our eastern and western borders. The new government will also have the uphill task of dealing with the IMF and negotiating a fresh programme, because the present one ends in March. The stock market has taken a nosedive in the wake of the political uncertainties and it is feared that the rupee may do the same if the present state of affairs continues without any economic reforms.
Another problem faced by the new government will be a very strong opposition with great public support, resulting in a noisy assembly where it will not be easy for the government to push through fresh legislation. The country stands further polarised by the elections than it was before – and this does not augur well for the new coalition government.
Moreover, no political party commands respect in all the provinces. PML-N will govern Punjab while the PTI has KP. And the PML-N’s coalition at the federal level will remain at daggers drawn with all the provincial governments. This provincial challenge will be a major nuisance and a thorn in the side of the federal government
The new government will have to develop close and friendly relations with the powerful establishment and remain on the same page in matters of governance, economy, investments and foreign relations – particularly when dealing with India, the US and Afghanistan. The relations between the governing coalition and the Powers That Be will be the determining factor for the success and longevity of the coalition government.
It must be admitted that the hopes of the nation were resting on this election. The common citizens looked to these elections as a means to usher in political stability and bring an end to the severe polarisation and uncertainties that the system faces. But it has not happened, and we are still faced with a great need for reconciliation and healing.
One can only hope and pray that our political leaders can now begin to work for the public interest and not their own narrow political and personal objectives.