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Pakistan: Massive Rigging by Army may Stich a Coalition Government Together, Public Protest

Pakistan: Massive Rigging by Army may Stich a Coalition Government Together, Public Protest

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Manas Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, Feb 10: With both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif claiming victory in Pakistan’s National Assembly elections, the outcome has shown that the election has failed to produce a clear winner leaving the military’s favoured party to cobble together a coalition in order to rule.

The sudden changes in the elections results have caused unrest on the streets, including reports of violence in parts of the country. And like always, allegations of rigging and election manipulation are rife with even international communities expressing concern over the state of affairs in the cash-starved country.

Results of the February 8 elections have thrown the country into uncertainty. Against all odds, independents loyal to the jailed Imran Khan continue to lead in the race. But other parties are conspiring together to deny the cricketer-turned politician another opportunity to be at the helm of affairs in Pakistan.

The country faces days of political horse-trading after a strong performance by independent candidates loyal to Imran Khan that scuppered the chances of the army-backed Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) from winning a ruling majority.

But after long delays in results that prompted further allegations the military had engaged in vote-rigging, the army-backed Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) declared victory as the party with the largest number of seats. However, to form a government, the party founded by the three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will be forced to cut deals with rivals and independents.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose popularity is largely limited to its Sindh heartland, also did better than expected, with leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari saying early results were “very encouraging.” The PML-N and PPP joined forces with minor parties to boot Khan from office in April 2022 after his PTI had won a slender majority in the 2018 election. “We don’t have enough of a majority to run the government ourselves, therefore we invite the other parties and candidates who have been successful to work with us,” Mr Sharif had said at his party headquarters in Lahore on Friday.

Imran Khan also claimed victory in the general election in an audio-visual message created using artificial intelligence and shared on his X social media account. The PTI had defied a months-long crackdown that crippled campaigning and forced their candidates to run as independents with a combined showing in Thursday’s election that still challenged their chief rivals.

Imran Khan also rejected rival Nawaz Sharif’s earlier claim to victory. Khan called on his supporters to celebrate a win that was achieved despite what he called “a crackdown on his party.” A slow counting process showed independents had won at least 99 seats — 88 of them loyal to Khan — by Saturday morning. PML-N took 71 and the PPP snapped up 53, with 15 of the elected 266-seat National Assembly still to be announced.

Minor parties between them shared 27 seats — including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which took 17 — that are likely to be of great interest to PTI in coming days. If PTI’s independents join one of them, they can take a share of the further 70 unelected seats reserved for women and religious minorities, which are allocated according to party performance in the contested vote.

The military looms large over Pakistan’s political landscape, with generals having run the country for nearly half its history since partition from India in 1947. But whoever becomes the Prime Minister, India will still have to deal with a problematic neighbour that gives shelter to terrorists.

Nawaz Sharif, who heads the PML-N, has expressed a keen interest in improving ties with India. His party manifesto promises a ‘Message of Peace’ to India, but only on the condition that India reverses the scrapping of special status under Article 370 of the Constitution from Jammu and Kashmir. Mr Sharif, who recently returned from exile, has acknowledged India’s progress and global achievements, advocating for renewed diplomatic ties between the two nations.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, 35, and the scion of the Bhutto dynasty entered the electoral fray with a rich political legacy. The son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and grandson of another former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, he inherited a family history marked by tragedy and power struggles. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s stance on India has been multifaceted. While advocating normalisation of ties, he also made widely criticised adverse comments on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the US.

Imran Khan, who leads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, had in 2019 asked PM Modi to “give peace a chance” and expressed readiness to act on intelligence regarding the Pulwama attack that killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel. In 2021, Imran Khan welcomed a ceasefire agreement, stressing Islamabad’s readiness to address issues through dialogue. However, in June 2023, he highlighted the absence of progress in the quid-pro-quo relationship with India.

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan was jailed and slapped with multiple sentences which would keep him out of the race. His aides and allies faced persecution, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was banned, forcing Imran-loyalists to run as independents. Leaderless, with a crippled organisation, and under pressure from the Establishment, many from PTI simply broke away to form their own parties, while ones who remained loyal struggled to campaign.

The stage was thus set for Nawaz Sharif for an easy victory in the February 8 elections. Most commentators, in Pakistan and abroad, expected the decimated PTI to flounder while the Establishment-backed PML-N cantered to victory.

Yet, when results started to trickle in Thursday night, it was clear that Imran Khan’s popularity among masses had translated to his loyalists’ electoral showing — despite having the full force of the Pakistan army, referred as Establishment, behind him, it was not a cakewalk for Nawaz after all.

PTI’s surprising performance meant that the Establishment had to resort to manipulating results to prevent an undesirable outcome. Results were thus delayed, and internet and mobile services suspended in many parts of the country, even as Pakistani social media went awash with videos showing alleged rigging and manipulation.

PTI-backed independents with massive leads suddenly lost thousands of votes from their tally, and down-and-out PML-N candidates made improbable comebacks. Clashes between citizens and the authorities broke out, as many, fearful of their vote being stolen away, took to the streets to protest.

With the electoral process becoming increasingly farcical, international observers and other countries reacted. Even the United States, Pakistan’s long-term ally, put out a statement of concern.

“We condemn electoral violence, restrictions on the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including attacks on media workers, and restrictions on access to the Internet and telecommunication services, and are concerned about allegations of interference in the electoral process. Claims of interference or fraud should be fully investigated,” the statement read.

Most importantly, however, the blatant attempt to subvert the mandate of the people enraged average Pakistanis. As Pakistan media reported, “there is much anger against the establishment’s open and constant interference in civilian matters… the state must realise that, sometimes, a vote for the underdog is a vote against the establishment.”

As per the latest figures from the Election Commission of Pakistan, accounting for 251 of 266 seats in play, PTI-backed candidates are winning in 91 seats, followed by PML-N with 71 seats, and Bilawal Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party with 54 seats.

While many have questioned these figures — at one time, PTI-backed candidates’ tally was over 120 — this nonetheless means that no one party will carry a majority to Pakistan’s National Assembly. A coalition government is the most likely outcome.

Nawaz Sharif, declaring victory Friday night, hinted that his party would lead a ruling coalition. “We don’t have enough of a majority to form a government without the support of others and we invite allies to join the coalition so we can make joint efforts to pull Pakistan out of its problems,” Sharif said.

Reports suggest that a Nawaz and Bhutto-Zardari coalition is all but finalised. Nawaz’s brother and former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Zardari met on Friday to discuss forming a “unity government”. Such a government will likely see Nawaz Sharif as PM with Bilawal Bhutto holding high office.

Following Nawaz’s “victory statement,” Imran Khan’s Twitter account posted an artificial-intelligence generated message congratulating his supporters on winning the 2024 elections. “I trusted that you all would come out to vote – and you honoured that trust and your massive turnout has shocked everyone,” the message said, adding that they must now “protect their vote” and not accept Nawaz Sharif’s claims of victory, virtually giving a call to the people to rise up against the establishment.

But with Imran in prison, the Establishment will also try to chip away at the PTI-backed independents. Given that they officially do not belong to any party, engineering defections is going to be somewhat simpler. The coming days will thus be a test of loyalty for those in Imran’s camp.

Imran Khan’s party released his ‘victory speech’ in his AI-enabled voice, saying that the ‘London Plan’ of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supremo Nawaz Sharif failed with the massive turnout of voters on polling day. “My beloved countrymen. By turning out in such huge numbers and exercising your democratic right of franchise, you have laid the foundation for the restoration of the freedom to exercise citizens’ rights. I congratulate you all on helping us win the elections handsomely. I had full faith in your turning out in such large numbers to cast your ballots. You lived up to my trust and the massive turnout on election day surprised many.

The ‘London Plan’ failed because of your active participation in the democratic exercise. Nawaz Sharif is a leader of low intelligence who gave a victory speech despite his party trailing in 30 seats,” the former PM said.

Expanding on his party’s claims of rigging and electoral malfeasance, Khan said, “No Pakistani will accept this (electoral malpractice) and the international media has also reported extensively about it. As per the Form 45 data, we are on course to win more than 170 National Assembly seats. My fellow countrymen, you all have set a date for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. We are winning the 2024 elections with a two-thirds majority. Everyone has seen the power of your vote. Now show your ability to preserve and protect it.”

 

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