Pro-Imran Khan candidates defied intimidation and vote rigging to win Pakistan’s election. Their victory was a rejection of the country’s corrupt military elite — and the US interests they serve.

(Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

The result of the 2024 general election in Pakistan was considered a foregone conclusion. With former Prime Minister Imran Khan sentenced to prison on spurious charges, most pundits didn’t give his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) much of a chance. After all, many of its political heavyweights and even supporters in the media were forced to abandon ship under a brutal and sadistic crackdown by the military. Prominent loyalists that refused to give in were either jailed or had to go into hiding, essentially preventing them from campaigning.  

For the purposes of the election, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf might as well have been dissolved. It had been barred from using its iconic electoral symbol, a cricket bat, and its candidates were forced to run as independents without a common symbol for voters to coalesce around. In a country where around 40 percent of the population cannot read or write, electoral symbols hold significant importance as many voters rely on them to know which candidate belongs to their party of choice. With each of its candidates having to sport a different symbol, it seemed like an insurmountable task on PTI’s hands to effectively communicate the message to their supporters. That task was made even more difficult when authorities suspended mobile calls and data services as voters went to the polls. 

Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), had reportedly been handpicked by the military brass after a reconciliation and brought back from his exile in London to take the figurative reins of the country again. It was his party that was expected to win a majority of seats. So confident were they of their triumph, they even had a victory speech scheduled soon after voting came to an end. But as the results from the count started trickling in, it was obvious that the people of Pakistan had other plans. 

Constituency after constituency showed PTI’s Independent candidates in the lead. Even with the rigging, voter intimidation, denying of access to PTI polling agents, and other forms of voter suppression such as lengthy delays, endless queuing, and the shutdown of mobile services, the wave of PTI supporters had been so huge that it likely countered the manipulation. The results completely destroyed decades-old norms and traditional wisdoms. There were Sunni populations voting for Shia candidates (and vice versa) in areas where there was sectarian divide, voters picking complete unknowns over influential feudal lords and industrialists — all out of support for Imran Khan and PTI. Rehana Dar, the mother of a PTI candidate forced under duress to quit the party and politics, who herself had been assaulted by the police, stood in the place of her son. With 99 percent of precincts accounted for, she seemed to have handily beaten a former Defence Minister and senior leader of the PMLN.  

But then the counting stopped and, it is alleged, the state worked its magic. Where PTI candidates — including Dar — were assured of clear victory with most of the votes counted, somehow, overnight, their opponents won. The results the next day showed that while PTI’s Independent candidates won the highest number of seats at 93, it was short of the 134 seats needed for a simple majority. The military’s favoured PMLN (73 seats) and Pakistan People’s Party (54 seats) had enough seats to form a coalition government with smaller parties. PTI claims that it has evidence that proves it actually won 180 seats, well above what was required for it to assume power, making much of the data available to the public 

Even taking the results at face value, it was an embarrassing night for not just the PTI’s opponents, but also many political experts who had been giving their analysis in the run-up to the elections. To understand how they got it so wrong, one has to understand the entrenched system of patronage fostered between the military and established political parties and the media elite, making their coverage of events often unreliable.  

Imran Khan’s victory in 2018 was a seismic event. Before that, the country was engaged in a game of musical chairs largely between the PMLN, PPP, and military. A cricket hero and philanthropist, Khan was able to tap into the frustration people had with corruption, lack of accountability, and mismanagement of the economy, providing a stark contrast to the dynastic politics of the other two parties. Sensing opportunity when the PMLN government fell out of favour with the military establishment, he got into bed with them. This move may have ensured that he finally got over the finish line, but it was also his undoing when their policies — especially after the invasion of Ukraine — eventually diverged and the military realised they couldn’t control him. 

As soon as he came into office, there was a push to delegitimise the mandate he was handed. Despite being the most popular politician in the country, he was painted by political opponents and commentators as someone who was only appointed to the role of prime minister by the military rather than through the ballot box. Bilawal Bhutto, who inherited the PPP from his mother and grandfather, even mocked an oblivious Khan as ‘Prime Minister-Select’ in the National Assembly. 

Hegemonic voices in the media, academia, and think tanks — whose socioeconomic capital was largely dependent on the patronage of the established political parties and status quo that Khan was upending — helped push a simplistic anti-Khan narrative and disseminated it globally. Prominent leading publications in the West ended up uncritically amplifying opposition propaganda.  

His governance was conflated with the military’s repression; something that was usually given a more nuanced coverage when other parties were in power. Khan was painted as an authoritarian while his opponents’ democratic credentials and popularity were comically exaggerated. Thus, a collaboration by political parties and the military — under the umbrella of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) — to depose the democratically elected PTI government in a vote of no confidence was framed as a victory for democracy. What followed was an almost unprecedented wave of repression and loss of civil liberties, leading to our current situation. It is a testament to Khan’s popularity in the country that a combined effort by every single other political party, the military establishment, and state institutions was still not enough to put down Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. That the powers that be had to resort to such a brazen attempt at post-poll rigging shows how desperate their position has become. 

It also puts the US in a difficult spot. One of the cases Imran Khan has been convicted of was leaking the contents of a cypher sent by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, in which he highlighted a meeting with a US government official who said that America was concerned about Khan’s visit to Russia and Pakistan’s neutral stance on Ukraine, and said ‘all would be forgiven’ if the no-confidence vote against the prime minister succeeded. Thus, implicated in the machinations to remove Khan, attempts by the State Department to deflect from questions comparing its response to places like Venezuela or opposition leaders in other countries with its approach to the situation in Pakistan stretch incredulity.  

Pakistanis went out in droves to vote for Imran Khan’s PTI despite every hurdle that was placed in front of them. They knew the elections were rigged, but still believed that if they remained steadfast, democracy would prevail. What has been foist upon them instead is PDM 2.0. This weak coalition of politicians the public has emphatically rejected will struggle to govern with any legitimacy. 

If the West wants to salvage what remains of people’s trust in democracy in the region, governments should speak out forcefully now. The only thing that will keep the Pakistani military in check is fear of sanctions and international reproach. Anything else will risk a generational disengagement of the public from politics and a backsliding of democracy. 

Biden once claimed that strengthening democracy is ‘the defining challenge of our age’. However, his administration’s response to the political crisis in Pakistan shows that they would prefer a country governed by a corrupt military-economic elite in hock to the US rather than a democratically elected government that dares go against America’s foreign policy objectives. 

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