A Tilted Playing Field: What Pakistan’s Electoral Shifts Could Mean for Imran Khan’s Government


Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was once a one-man operation, revolving around former cricket star Imran Khan alone. As such, the party’s victory in Pakistan’s recent national and provincial elections represent a dramatic rise. Although results have yet to be fully finalized, at last count the PTI has won at least 115 directly elected seats in the national assembly and is set to form the next government.

Yet currently available electoral data indicates the PTI won fewer seats and by narrower margins than the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government that preceded it, in considerable part due to divisions amongst its opponents. This suggests the party’s mandate may not be as durable as it initially appears. The PTI achieved its victory in part due to the interventions of the Pakistani military and judiciary in the months prior to the polls, which tilted the playing field in favor of Khan’s party and encouraged defections by political elites seeking a place on the winning bandwagon. But with only a plurality win, the party will still have to make further compromises and accommodations with independent candidates and smaller parties to establish a majority coalition.

A divided opposition vote gave the PTI an edge in the elections, but all of Pakistan’s other major parties have since rejected the fairness of the polls. Khan’s rhetoric on the campaign trail promised public accountability and sweeping overhauls for Pakistan’s economy and political system, but effecting those changes would be a major challenge even with a solid majority coalition. The absence of such consensus presages a tumultuous start for the newest civilian government in Pakistan.

Imran Khan’s Rise to Power

Internationally famous as a cricketer and philanthropist in his younger years, Khan was a fringe figure when his political career began. After winning a single seat in 2002, boycotting elections in 2008, and falling short by narrow margins in 2013 — after which he was shut out from many of the formal institutions of power — Khan has spent the past five years seeking to oust the PML-N government through street protests, court cases, and occasional oblique calls for military intervention. Although his remarks immediately following the July 25 polls were more measured, Khan regularly denounces his opponents with populist diatribes against corruption, attributing the country’s social stratification, poverty, and other economic woes to direct personal theft by his rivals. His supporters see him as a pure leader who can transform the country and its politics.

But Khan has made his own compromises in the pursuit of power, as he grudgingly acknowledged in a handful of interviews prior to the vote. He has brought into his party fold many traditional power brokers and professional politicians who had fallen out with or were passed over by other more established parties, or otherwise defected to join Khan’s rising star. The PTI’s opponents point more significantly to the role of the Pakistani military, which operates as a behind-the-scenes power broker even when not overtly ruling the country. The PTI’s rise cannot be solely attributed to military intervention; doing so discounts the agency of the Pakistani politicians who sought partnership with the party in their own pursuit of office, and understates a real base of voter support for the PTI. Still, the popular franchise only goes so far in determining the balance of power in Pakistan. The ISI intelligence agency reportedly backed protests by the PTI and other opponents of the PML-N government throughout its tenure, and in the run-up to the polls reportedly conducted an accelerating campaign of harassment, coercion, and bribery aimed at weakening the PTI’s major competitors.

An Uneven, Divided Playing Field

While it is difficult to precisely ascribe the degree to which the outcome of the elections reflects the views of Pakistani citizens or just those of military engineers, the lopsided, uneven nature of the electoral competition was evident well before ballots were cast. For more than a year leading up to last week’s vote, Pakistan’s political scene was in turmoil amidst ongoing legal proceedings that culminated in the disqualification from office and subsequent conviction of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Along with his daughter and political heir apparent, Maryam Nawaz, Sharif was implicated in the Panama Papers release and charged with hiding undeclared assets overseas.

The Pakistani legal and political system offers broad leeway to judicial, civil and military service officials as to how the rules of the game are enforced — despite lengthy investigations into the origins of his assets, Sharif was ultimately disqualified by the courts under loosely defined provisions accusing him of being insufficiently “honest and righteous” for omitting a source of reported income. Press restrictions — both in the form of direct military intervention and media groups self-censoring — also curtailed coverage of the PML-N leader’s campaigns and legal defenses. The relevant question for rule of law in Pakistan is not the extent of legal rules but whether and who they are enforced against. For much of the past year and a half, Sharif and other members of his party governed and campaigned for election under a mounting burden of court hearings and multiplying investigations.

Sharif has attributed the pressures against him to military intervention. He alleges that the military is responding to his efforts to bring treason charges against former dictator and president Pervez Musharraf (responsible for ousting Sharif in a 1999 coup) and to disputes between his government and the military over Pakistan’s policy towards India and, to a degree, Afghanistan. Sharif speaks with some experience; earlier in his own career he was himself both beneficiary and victim of military interventions that produced and toppled a rapid succession of PML-N and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) governments during the 1990s. Closely divided parliaments offer more avenues for military influence behind the scenes, allowing them to partner with or coerce small groups of lawmakers to ensure civilian compliance and preserve military autonomy.

Party-switching is common in Pakistan, and many politicians took the hint following Sharif’s ouster, defecting to join the PTI or contesting as independents and waiting to see which winning bandwagon to board after the elections. In the spring, the PML-N-led coalition government in Balochistan province collapsed and was replaced by a newly formed party, the Balochistan Awami Party, which Sharif’s successor, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, alleged was formed with the military’s backing. Other regional parties also faced fractures. Most prominently, the Muttahida Quami Movement’s political machine in Karachi was broken by a combination of paramilitary operations begun early in the PML-N government’s tenure — with the blessing of the MQM’s rivals in the other major parties — and internal leadership splits. Finally, new religious movements also emerged to challenge the established parties’ vote banks, including Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which formed in support of Pakistan’s “blasphemy” law and shut down parts of the capital city with protests in the fall of 2017.

Parsing the Election Results

Pakistan is a multi-party political system despite its “first-past-the-post” electoral rules (as in the United Kingdom and United States, each district or constituency elects only one member). This means fragmentation of the opposition vote can have a major impact on the results. While the PTI, PML-N, and PPP are the largest national parties by vote shares, independent candidates and smaller parties took substantial portions of the vote away from the major parties. Pakistan is not unique in this regard — neighboring India has experienced similar dynamics, as have a number of other Westminister system parliamentary democracies — and a variety of voter motivations can produce such splits. But the 2018 elections did produce a notable shift towards a more divided vote compared to the previous? election cycle (as the graph below indicates), particularly in Punjab province and in Karachi. This greater division suggests that the strains facing many of the major parties in the pre-election period did, in fact, have an impact.

Pakistan has a diverse electoral geography, but based on available data from the Election Commission of Pakistan, overall nationwide turnout declined from the most recent elections, particularly in the heartland provinces of Punjab (down 2.7 percent from 2013 national assembly participation rates) and Sindh (which reported an 8.9 percent drop). Races also tightened overall, with the average margin of victory narrowing from 18.9 percent to 12.8 percent, and the overall share of the vote captured by third place-finishers and below growing to more than a quarter of all votes cast (up from around 23 percent in 2013).

The PML-N, which won 64 seats at latest count, contested fewer seats than the PTI nationwide and did poorly outside of its core constituencies in Punjab. Of the three major parties, the PPP had the highest average margin of victory in the constituencies where it won, but had the lowest rate of success for its contesting candidates, leaving it limited to its base of Sindh province for the second election cycle in a row. Although it fell short of winning any seats at the national level, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan was the fifth-largest party nationally (not counting independent candidates), underscoring their emergence as an important political swing bloc and social movement. Although not definitive, some exit surveys suggest that a significant chunk of TLP voters had previously supported the PML-N, cutting into its margins in this cycle.

The PTI was the overall beneficiary of the disproportionalities inherent in a first-past-the-post system, the fragmenting of the opposition vote, and the uneven distribution of voters across constituencies. Khan’s party secured around 42 percent of all contested national assembly seats on the basis of around 32 percent of the national popular vote. While this has put it in a solid position to form the next government, further concessions may be necessary when it comes to governing, particularly given the coalescing opposition against its win.

A Contested Outcome

Election systems offer a means of structuring political competition between interest groups, but that competition invariably continues even after the polls are closed and positions of authority allocated to the winners. After the 2013 elections, despite losing out on access to many formal institutional centers of power, the PTI moved quickly to challenge the PML-N on multiple fronts and sought to maintain that pressure throughout the government’s tenure. Similarly, the losers of last week’s election have also rejected the fairness of the results.

Observer groups noted improvements in the electoral commission’s administration of the polls, but the process of counting and consolidating vote data dragged on for several days after late-night technical breakdowns on election day. Results remain unfinalized as many constituencies around the country undergo recounts and adjudicate complaints. Many opposition parties have reported instances where their observer agents were barred from polling stations during the final counting process, and the commission’s slow and opaque process of finalizing results has not inspired confidence.

The opposition has initially been divided in its response, with the PML-N and PPP seeking to take their new seats while smaller parties have called for boycotts of the new assemblies. The PML-N is likely to face further strain as it grapples with the succession of leadership after Sharif’s conviction and its poor performance in the polls, particularly if it also loses control of the provincial government in Punjab. But the opposition parties have taken steps towards closer coordination in recent days, and may intensify their efforts should the PTI pursue a maximalist agenda while opposition groups are shut out from the institutions of power. A strengthened and somewhat united opposition, working against the backdrop of an army eager to exploit shifting loyalties and a polarized parliament, could make it even tougher for Khan — already a novice when it comes to governing — to implement his agenda. 

‘Naya Pakistan’ Takes Shape

Regardless of how sustained the opposition challenge to the election outcome proves to be, Khan and the PTI find themselves in an unenviable position as they face the strains of making good on their pledges to build a “New Pakistan” after spending years outside of power.

Most immediately, Pakistan faces deteriorating foreign currency reserves due to stagnant exports, rising oil prices, and the import bill for infrastructure projects launched as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The government will need to either return to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan program — as its two predecessor governments were compelled to do soon after coming into office — or rely on further concessional loans from China or Saudi Arabia. Beijing has reportedly pledged a fresh $2 billion loan in recent weeks that will temporarily buoy the new government, but this is unlikely to be sufficient. Pakistani finance ministry officials are pushing for a longer-term IMF program that may come with more stringent conditions attached.

Domestically, federalist devolution measures instituted under the last PPP government have strengthened the role of the provincial governments, and intra-provincial disputes over revenue-sharing from the PML-N’s time in office remain unresolved. In his post-election address Khan noted the serious poverty and lack of opportunity facing the country’s large and growing population, but his proposed solutions to these problems during the campaign centered primarily on prosecuting the Sharif family and recovering its allegedly ill-gotten gains. Fully unlocking the country’s growth potential would require making politically contentious systemic reforms and economically engaging with India and the rest of the region, which the new government appears ill-prepared to do.

While the PTI’s newly elected members are no doubt eager to take power and willing to cooperate with party leadership in the short term, opportunistic political elites are not guaranteed to stick with Khan’s leadership for the long term. Beyond the upcoming legal battles and investigations that may follow specific allegations of vote-rigging, the patchwork nature of the winning coalition may provide the opposition with opportunities to challenge the new government. The PTI’s plurality in parliament is smaller than that of its predecessor, which may leave it more obliged to make concessions to lawmakers and parties at the margins — or further accommodations with unelected centers of power like the military.

After years of populist opposition, Imran Khan has won the electoral prize. Now comes the hard part.


Colin Cookman is a program officer with the United States Institute of Peace, where he manages and supports the Asia Center publications portfolio, and conducts analysis on the politics and security of Pakistan and Afghanistan and U.S. policy towards the region. Views expressed here are his own. He can be contacted at ccookman@usip.org, or on Twitter @colincookman.

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