In trying to understand the outcome of the July 25 elections, there are two narratives that have been advanced by the winners and the losers respectively. For the former, the PTI’s emergence as the largest party in parliament after capturing 117 seats is nothing less than the triumphant culmination of Imran Khan’s 22 year long struggle to win power through a promise of accountability and prosperity for all. For the latter however, the PTI’s triumph is largely the result of an orchestrated attempt by the military establishment to bring in a pliant civilian government through extensive pre-poll rigging and vote manipulation on election day itself. This claim gains credence from the observation that the PML-N and other parties were selectively targeted for accountability by the courts and not provided with a level playing field to campaign on, with this being borne out by the final report given by EU observers witnessing the election proceedings. Further evidence of conspiracy comes from widespread accounts of malpractice on polling day, with virtually all the parties except by the PTI claiming that their polling agents were illegally ejected from polling stations, that many Returning Officers failed to provide the parties with official vote counts, and that the day-long delay in the broadcasting of official results was an obvious indication of electoral fraud.
While there is considerable reason to be sceptical of the validity and legitimacy of the election results, there are countervailing factors that need to be taken into account before reaching any definitive conclusions. For one, while most non-partisan observers agree that the pre-poll political environment was one that seemed to have been deliberately shaped to favour the PTI, the evidence of rigging on polling day is not entirely persuasive at this early stage; while there were undoubtedly irregularities documented by credible sources, the scale at which these took place – the difference between dozens and thousands of polling stations – is not yet clear. Matters are complicated by how the ECP itself has explained away much of the confusion by invoking its own incompetence, with the delay in the compilation of results being attributed to the failure of a new and untested IT system, and by observations from international observers and neutral bodies like FAFEN finding relatively few instances of election fraud. Still, a shadow of doubt will continue to hang over these elections, especially when considering how most of the opposition parties have agreed to continue contesting the results, and only time will separate fact from fiction. The ideal course of action for the new government to pursue would be to convene an independent authority to investigate claims of rigging and provide it with the resources and cooperation needed for it to discharge its responsibilities impartially.
Similarly, even if pre-poll rigging took place and was responsible for at least some of the PTI’s success, perhaps providing it with the extra 5-10% needed to push it over the finish line in the extremely competitive districts of northern and central Punjab, or by inducing enough electables to defect to the party amidst the dimming prospects of their previous political allies, it does not completely explain the scale of what happened on election day. After all, there were some PTI ‘electables’ who were unable to win seats despite the factors in their favour, and there were other political heavyweights whose losses would have been unimaginable just a few weeks ago. Here, it becomes necessary to concede that at some level, the PTI’s campaign worked; the relentless focus on the alleged corruption of its rivals, the message of change uncomfortably married to the accommodation of traditional ‘electable’ politicians, and several years of sit-ins and protests creating a passionate core of support on social media and in the streets of Pakistan’s cities, all came together to generate some genuine enthusiasm for the party.
Therefore, in answer to the question of whether it was the establishment or the PTI itself that managed to pull off victory on July 25, it is probably wise to accept that it was a bit of both. The PTI benefitted from its privileged position prior to the polls but was also undoubtedly able to capitalize on some genuine desire for change.
The months and years to come will probably see a continuation of the acrimonious politics of the past half-decade, with the PTI inevitably finding itself on the receiving end of attacks questioning the legitimacy of its victory. That this is ironic goes without saying. More important, perhaps, is where the party and Pakistan’s new Prime Minister will take the country as the courts and other institutions begin the slow and laborious process of dealing with complaints regarding the elections. Here, the picture is at once clearer and more worrisome. In the past few years, Imran Khan has said and done much to make all but the most ardent true believers wary of his intentions; his uncomfortable reluctance to challenge the skewed state of civil-military relations in Pakistan, his even more awkward embrace of religious extremists and their regressive ideologies, his dismissive attitude towards the rights of women and minorities, the evident lack of patience his supporters have for dissent and criticism, and the messianic belief that one man with power can change everything, all point towards troubling times for democracy and pluralistic values in the days ahead. Matters are not helped by just how perfectly Imran Khan’s views on foreign relations happen to mirror those of the establishment, thereby promising the continuation of a status quo that has made Pakistan an international pariah even as the architects of these policies continue to delude themselves into thinking they are on the right path. With his problematic ideological leanings, questionable democratic credentials, and alignment with significant sections of the traditional political elite, Imran Khan’s tenure may be little more than more of the same that this country has seen over the past few decades.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.