Uncertainty ahead for Pakistan after indecisive election

Supporters of Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party block the Quetta-Chaman highway as they protest against the alleged skewing in Pakistan's national election results, in Quetta on February 12, 2024AFP

Pakistan has weeks of political uncertainty ahead following its indecisive election, analysts said Monday, with dozens of constituency results facing challenges in court and rival parties negotiating possible coalitions.

Independent candidates loyal to jailed former prime minister Imran Khan took most of the seats in Thursday's polls, scuppering the chances of the army-backed Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party from securing a ruling majority.

Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) defied a months-long crackdown that crippled campaigning and forced candidates to run as independents to emerge as the winners of the vote.

There were widespread allegations of vote-rigging and result manipulation after authorities switched off the nation's mobile phone network on election day, ostensibly on security grounds, and the count took more than 24 hours.

"Three potential challenges are linked to the legitimacy of the elections through prolonged legal proceedings, protests and potential for violence," said Pakistan-based political analyst Amber Rahim Shamsi.

Despite independents winning 101 national assembly seats, a government can only be formed by a recognised party, or coalition of parties, so they would have to join another group to become an effective bloc.

Desperately needed reforms

A coalition between PML-N and the Pakistan People's Party -- who formed the last government after ousting Khan with a no-confidence vote in April 2022 -- still seems a most likely outcome.

"In the short term, any coalition birthed through a highly controversial election in a highly charged political environment will find it challenging to enact unpopular reforms that Pakistan desperately needs," Shamsi told AFP.

At least six minor parties won just one or two seats in the election, and would welcome independents to their ranks.

That would give them access to an additional 70 seats reserved for women and religious minorities and allocated according to election results -- although it has never been done on this scale before and faces legal challenges.

"The courts have a very delicate role at this moment," said legal expert Osama Malik, adding: "They will (also) need to decide whether to order recounts in various constituencies."

PTI leaders insist they have been given a "people's mandate" to form the next government.

"The people have decided in favour of Imran Khan," party chairman Gohar Ali Khan said, before urging party supporters to picket election offices where he said rigging took place.

The potential for violent protest is ever present in Pakistan and police fired tear gas to disperse PTI supporters Sunday after vowing to suppress illegal gatherings.

The United Nations weighed in on Monday, calling for resolution of disputes through "established legal frameworks."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres "urges the authorities, political leaders, to maintain a calm atmosphere and to reject and refrain from all forms of violence," his spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

Hundreds of party leaders and supporters were picked up last year when Khan was hit with more than 150 criminal cases he says were trumped up by the military-led establishment to stop him from contesting the election.
Earlier this month he was sentenced to lengthy jail terms after being found guilty of treason, graft and having an un-Islamic marriage.

Defections common

But disgrace rarely lasts long in Pakistan politics -- the PML-N's three-time premier Nawaz Sharif was himself sentenced to long jail terms and exile abroad, only to have the convictions quashed when his party's fortunes improved.

Dozens of constituencies will have to have by-elections even without the results being challenged.

Several candidates won in multiple constituencies -- a quirk allowed under Pakistan law -- so they will have to choose one, with fresh elections held in the others.

Party defections are also common, with at least two winning independents who pledged pre-election loyalty to Khan already announcing they were joining the PML-N. More could follow.

Whatever the outcome, the next government faces myriad challenges.

Deeply in debt, the economy has for decades been propped up by successive bailouts from the International Monetary Fund and loans from wealthy gulf Arab nations that use Pakistanis as cheap labour.

Inflation is galloping at nearly 30 per cent and the rupee has lost almost 50 percent of its value since 2021.

"No government will have the luxury of time and political security after these elections," said Shamsi.

"There are also fears that this political insecurity will continue until the next elections."