When polls closed on Pakistan’s historic elections this past Saturday, social media posts of political pundits and many Pakistani citizens were generally celebratory. “Democracy wins” read one tweet. “This is democracy for us” read another. To democracies with more tried-and-true electoral systems, judging from Pakistan’s recent elections, it may have looked like the country’s democratic system was not winning. There were militant attacks on polling stations in nearly every province, inter-party rivalry resulted in gun fights in the streets of Karachi, and clear evidence of vote-rigging and fraud surfaced. But given Pakistan’s turbulent political history, Saturday’s elections were a relative success. Though official final results have yet to be announced, glimpses of a new political landscape and a burgeoning democracy were revealed in this election process.
Elections proceeded on schedule. Despite the fact that about 30 people were killed in violent incidents on the day (the finale to a reported 130 attacks resulting in about 150 deaths in the last month leading up to the elections), Pakistanis were not deterred. Average nationwide voter turnout was 60 %, the highest it has been in 40 years, compared to just 44 % in the 2008 elections. This enthusiasm was demonstrated by one elderly man who was brought to a polling station Karachi on a stretcher—a video posted online shows people applauding him as he was carried out. Other voters braved long queues and the heat, some waiting in line for hours to cast a vote.
Another major achievement was that for once in Pakistan’s history, its military was an important facilitator, instead of an interference, in this process of transitioning from one civilian leader to another. For example, this was demonstrated by the presence of military troops deployed by the caretaker government at some high-risk polling stations.
One major, but perhaps expected, setback was fraud. Concerns over fraud and corruption were largely downplayed in the international media as militant attacks dominated headlines in the build up to the elections. But amateur videos uploaded to the Internet seemed to indicate the occurrence of vote-rigging and ballot box stuffing at several polling stations, particularly in Karachi where fraud and violent incidents caused several polling stations to shut down. Various levels of fraud may have been widespread across the country on the day, though with limited media access in some areas, such as Balochistan, it is difficult to know to what extent fraud distorted the results.
However, the independent Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), was quick to acknowledge the fraud and moved quickly to address it. Following complaints in an area of Karachi, the ECP’s Secretary Ishtiak Ahmad announced that re-polling would take place in 43 stations in one constituency in the next ten days.
Though former cricket player Imran Khan will not be the country’s next prime minister, hisPakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party did cover a lot of ground in this election for a relative newcomer to mainstream politics. Currently, they are neck-and-neck with the country’s largest political party, the Pakistan’s People Party (PPP) for seats in the National Assembly, both parties winning about 30 seats each. The party also took the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province from the Awami National Party (ANP), which will provide a testing ground for PTI’s policy promises on hot topics such as demanding a stop to drone strikes and countering terrorism.
The ‘youth vote’ that the PTI was banking on to sweep the elections did in fact turn out in droves to vote across the country, though their vote was too fragmented to consolidate a win for PTI. But the PTI’s major success was apparent even before the polls opened. The party managed to engage and inspire a relatively apolitical demographic across the country, the urban upper and middle class. The PTI has entered the political arena as major third player in mainstream politics, rising up through popular nation-wide support and, most importantly, across ethnic or regional lines. This is in contrast to the victorious Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), which appears to have won the national elections mainly by cleaning up in the heavily weighted province of Punjab where it draws most of its support (118 of its 126 seats won so far in the National Assembly are in Punjab). The PTI has now vowed to play a strong opposition role in the Parliament, poising itself for the 2018 elections.
But for the next five years, as widely anticipated, Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N is set to be prime minister for the third time, making a remarkable comeback to power after years in exile in Saudi Arabia. It is projected by many news agencies that PML-N will emerge with a majority of seats, picked up through alliances with independent parties, thus avoiding the complex process of coalition-building.
Sharif’s biggest and most immediate challenges will be to reinvigorate the economy, solve the energy crisis, and deal with Pakistan’s internal terrorism crisis while also balancing foreign relations. Known to be a realist, he has already promised a tall order, making public statements post-election that he will fight extremism, improve relations with the US and Afghanistan, and even invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to his inauguration ceremony. Under his party’s rule, Punjab province has undergone significant infrastructural and economic development and enjoyed relative peace over the past years, so he does have a proven track record in that sector.
However, any improvements the PML-N make will appear amplified in the wake of the PPP’srule, which failed to boost the economy or deal with domestic terrorism. One political commentator, academic and intellectual Adil Najam, tweeted “the great political story of the night not PML-N or PTI, its PPP.” Remarkably, the PPP, the country’s largest national party, only managed to gain 31 seats (as opposed to 91 in 2008), and all but one in their regional stronghold of Sindh.
This is indeed democracy, a massive national undertaking inherently full of challenges and potential disorder, but in which parties and politicians can be made or broken from one election to the next depending on the demands and needs of a country’s people. While the country did suffer some significant growing pains in these elections, it was nonetheless a major and historic growth spurt for Pakistan’s young democracy.