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Monday March 04, 2024

Next steps for a political miracle

There is no escaping the party’s arrival as the big, immovable object in Pakistani politics

February 13, 2024
A voter casts her vote in a polling station during General Election 2024 on February 8, 2024. — APP
 A voter casts her vote in a polling station during General Election 2024 on February 8, 2024. — APP

The people of Pakistan spoke clearly on February 8. Their favourite political party is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Their favourite leader, even though he is in jail, is as beloved to them as any Pakistani politician has been in decades.

To win 93 seats out of 266 under the circumstances the PTI faced in this election is nothing short of a political miracle. There is no escaping the party’s arrival as the big, immovable object in Pakistani politics. The history of big, immoveable objects in Pakistani politics is not a love story. More on the film noir genre in subsequent columns, but today: let’s take stock.

Two questions hang over what will happen next. First, can the very system (Election Commission, judiciary, and most of all, civilian bureaucracy) that ruined as good an election day as could have been expected, be trusted to undo its own mess? Second, can a new, grown-up PTI pivot from its populist binarism and evolve into a power-wielding coalition builder?

Let’s take the question about the system first. There are a number of seats where the manipulation of results seems blatant and obvious. By the time it became crystal clear that PTI-endorsed candidates would comprise the largest single group in parliament, it also became clear that the results in some seats simply did not make any numerical sense. Salman Akram Raja in NA-128, Khurram Sher Zaman in NA-241, Taimur Khan Jhagra in PK-79, Meher Bano Qureshi in NA-151, and Dr Yasmin Rashid in NA-130 all have robust arguments for how their mandate has been compromised.

Some of the stories are Netflix-ready. The returning officer in NA-130 took medical leave after he oversaw an eighteen-hour delay in issuing the provisional consolidated result because of what the newspapers have described as “a severe medical condition”. Given the wild disparities in publicly shared versions of Form 47 from NA-130, whatever medical condition it was, an honest day’s work may have been the cure. The debate on how many of these stories there are, how many are on valid grounds and how many will be overturned is an interesting one. That debate extends to the PTI itself.

On the day after the election, PTI leader Aleema Khan claimed it had won 185 of 266 seats – or about double the number it was declared to have won (93). Later that day, PTI Chairman Barrister Gohar first said the PTI had won 180 seats. Later, he claimed the party had evidence to show for 22 of the seats PTI endorsed candidates had lost. On Sunday night, PTI Secretary General Omar Ayub Khan said there were 18 seats for which the evidence was available. If the party’s evidence (properly consolidated Form 45s and resulting Form 47s) stands up during recounts and/or final consolidation (due within seven days plus twenty-four hours of the announcement of provisional results) this would bring the total number of PTI endorsed winners to 111 (93 + 18).

This 111 would represent more than double what the PPP has won, and thirty-five more seats than the PML-N’s current count. That is equal to almost two Balochistans, or more than half of Sindh. It is not a slight margin, but a significant mandate. In a diverse, divided country that was primed to deny the PTI through hook or by crook, it is huge.

Among the measures that probably served to reduce this margin were the shutting down of mobile phone services and the subsequent difficulties presiding officers had in getting Form 45s to their respective ROs. Accidental? It beggars belief.

Who is charged with righting the errors of the Election Commission, the POs and ROs? Those very same organizations and individuals. Pakistan’s bureaucracy is often unfairly targeted for criticism it doesn’t deserve. But ‘mistakes’ in adding numbers from Form 45s to Form 47s that take place in a heated and high-stakes environment aren’t small errors – and these kinds of omissions further erode public confidence in civil servants.

In the next week, the final consolidated results will be tallied. The ECP, ROs and DROs will have a chance to fix the mess created by post-election result alterations. Pakistanis are right to be sceptical of whether they will do the right thing, but doing it will restore immense dignity to the country’s fragile institutions.

The second question: Can the PTI grow into a more political entity by shunning its instinctive vilification of all other parties and learning to work with one or more of them?

The stakes are not to be taken lightly. Just imagine a government without the PTI – the largest and most popular party – not by opinion poll, or by angry YouTube rant, but via an election. What happens when you deny the undeniable? And when you burden the undeserving with responsibility they have failed to earn? Will a minus-PTI government be much more effective than the PDM government that governed from April 2022 to August 2023?

The answer has nothing to do with experience or capability, though both have become question marks for the PML-N thanks to the polycrisis that began in 2022 and shows no sign of letting up. The answer has to do with legitimacy.

Reasonable PTI supporters largely regret what happened on May 9, even though many cling to ridiculous conspiracy theories about it. It has been exactly nine months now (as long and reasonable a gestation period as any) for ordinary PTI supporters who were not involved with the attempted insurrection of May 9 to be allowed to be themselves. If they feel cheated of their right to choose their government, how much space will they afford a coalition of leaders that helped cheat them?

Unfair as it will seem to the PTI partisan, a coalition that includes the PTI to the PML-N’s exclusion will feel even worse for Noon League supporters. Who will give back Nawaz Sharif the time since July 2017 – when he was convicted and had to resign the office of PM? Who will give back Nawaz Sharif a chance to speak to his deceased wife before she passed away? Who will restore the mandate to govern that was undermined as early as the summer of 2014, less than a year after he took oath for the third time? Who will reverse the effects of the 2014 dharna, the Dawn Leaks fiasco, and the relentless state-sponsored propaganda about his loyalties to his country?

Sadly, the answer is no one. And attempts to seize some measure of recompense, by insisting on taking power when the people of the country have moved on? That will only deepen the crisis of political appeal that the new generation of PML-N leaders now face. This crisis is informed in part by the old generation clinging to power and in part by the old generation clinging to grievances.

In all this, the PTI can proudly boast of having mobilized the voter in 2024. The full force of what walked in the front door on February 8, 2024 will be felt for the next two decades, but to put numbers to it, consider that nearly 21 million of the 128 million registered voters in Pakistan are new voters; 12.5 million of these new voters are women. Imran Khan doesn’t own the youth demographic entirely – but he is the one that has driven that bus onto Constitution Avenue.

On the flip side, the PTI must also remember what a mandate is, and what it isn’t. In the popular vote, the PTI thumped PML-N and PPP. It polled over 19 million votes. It beat the PML-N by over five million votes, and the PPP by over 10 million. That’s one part of the mandate.

Here’s the other: one of the losing TLP candidates won over 90,000 votes. Several losing candidates from the three bigs (PML-N, PPP and PTI) polled 100,000 votes in losing causes. Combined the twin towers of Purana Pakistan – PML-N and PPP – won over 22 million. All 22 million of those voters are as Pakistani as the PTI’s impressive 19 million.

An electoral mandate, even as clear as the PTI’s, is not merely a licence to rule. It is consent from the people to be governed – all people, not just the ones that vote for you. Leaders can’t perpetually follow their followers down the rabbit holes of YouTube subscriptions and TikTok likes. They must make difficult decisions. The hardest ones are for the biggest leaders. Even those that have suffered like Nawaz Sharif, and those that are suffering, like Imran Khan.

Pakistanis Zindabad.


The writer is an analyst and commentator.