A surprise?

February 18, 2024

The PTI-backed independents managed to secure a sizeable number of seats in the National Assembly.Was this an unexpected outcome?

A surprise?


ohail Warraich, the veteran journalist, has often been heard saying: “Election is another name for surprises; many seen as pillars of strength are brought down and new faces win and reach the assemblies.” This has once again proven to be the case. The results of the recent general elections in Pakistan have surprised many. Contrary to what most political pundits and observers had predicted, independent candidates aligned with former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf won the most seats in the National Assembly. These were followed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

Were these results really unexpected? Have the (PTI-backed) independents fared better than expected? These and other related questions demand a thorough investigation.

It is imperative to mention here that despite winning more than 90 National Assembly seats, the PTI has accused the Election Commission of Pakistan and the returning officers appointed by the ECP of conniving with its opponents to rig the elections and ‘steal’ its popular mandate. This is not new. Almost all previous election editions have seen a similar response from losing parties and candidates. Other critics and analysts too have been alleging that the elections had been ‘rigged’ or ‘manipulated’ in favour of some candidates/ parties favoured by the establishment. Overall, out of 11 elections since 1985, five have been ranked more controversial, ‘rigged’ or ‘dirty’ than others. These were the elections held in 2018; 1990; 2002; 1985; and 1997.

Not all allegations of rigging or manipulation are baseless. Before the February 8 elections, the field was uneven to the disadvantage of the PTI on several counts. First, most of its first tier leaders, including its founder, arguably the country’s most popular politician today, were behind bars. Second, the party faced a state-backed crackdown. Third, it was deprived of its electoral symbol. Fourth, the nominations of several PTI candidates were rejected. Fifth, Nawaz Sharif, a major political opponent, who had been previously imprisoned and was until recently living in exile, returned to the country and was allowed to contest the elections despite having been declared ineligible previously. Sixth, internet and mobile phone services were disrupted allegedly to affect the PTI campaign and to hinder polling day mobilisation; seventh, many PTI-backed candidates were not allowed to run their election campaigns as they and their key aides were imprisoned or forced underground.

A surprise?

Khalid Khan Ranjha, a young lawyer, and his father were kidnapped for canvassing for a PTI-backed candidate in NA-83, Sargodha. They were released after the polling day.

All this is pre-poll rigging or manipulation, says Ahmed Ejaz, a political commentator and analyst. Pre-poll rigging, he says, has been the “most effective method” of affecting electoral outcomes. “The establishment has been [pre]rigging the elections in various ways to ensure that their favoured party does well.”

Most political commentators had expected the PML-N to emerge as the single largest party in the National Assembly. My observation, on the contrary, had been that the constituencies with high voter turnout – more than 50 percent – would be won by the PTI whereas the constituencies with low voter turnout – around 40 or 45 percent – would go to its opponents. If the PTI could mobilise its voters, it expected it to surprise everyone.

That proved to be the case in many parts of the country. The PTI shocked many political observers and proved them wrong. It became the single largest party in the National Assembly and won an absolute majority in the Provincial Assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The results show that the PTI won most of the constituencies with a high turnout.

That the PTI-backed candidates won such a large share is a remarkable outcome, making the 2024 elections one of the most significant in recent Pakistani history. One way to read the vote is that the people have become weary of the two traditional parties — the PML-N and the PPP — seen as dynastic, and embraced Imran Khan’s aspirational, populist platform. Another way to read the outcome is that it is also a rejection of the establishment’s role in politics, in particular its opposition to the PTI and the clampdown against the party over the last year.

It was widely anticipated that the PML-N would win and the PTI lose the election. At the heart of this projection was the state of Khan’s relationship with the establishment.

The writer is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad, and a research fellow at PIDE, Islamabad. He can be reached at mazharabbasgondal87@gmail.com. His X handle: @MazharGondal87

A surprise?