On July 25, Pakistanis went to polls, following the first time two successive governments have completed their five-year terms in office. Despite this democratic milestone, Pakistan’s powerful military remains a dominant force in the country’s politics. While observers in Washington will look for the implications of the vote on U.S.-Pakistani relations, the next government in Islamabad will have to prioritize the country’s struggling economy. The campaign was marred by electoral violence, capped off by an ISIS-claimed Election Day attack in Quetta that killed at least 31 people near a polling station. Early results indicate that former cricket star Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are poised to form the next government. USIP’s Pakistan experts discuss what this election will mean for Pakistani democracy, the role of the military in the electoral process, and the impact on U.S.-Pakistani relations.

A supporter of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former cricket star Imran Khan demonstrates in Islamabad, Pakistan.
A supporter of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former cricket star Imran Khan demonstrates in Islamabad, Pakistan.

What does this election mean for Pakistan’s democracy?

Moeed Yusuf: This is a schizophrenic moment for Pakistan’s democracy. On the one hand, Pakistan has completed 10 years of uninterrupted democratic rule and the second transition from one democratic government to another; this is history in the making. It is also substantively important given the conventional wisdom that if you let the democratic process continue, the political system will weed out the bad and ugly in favor of the clean and efficient. 

On the other hand, you’ve got all sorts of allegations of pre-poll rigging and manipulation that seem awfully similar to the Pakistan of the 1990s when no elected government was allowed to complete its five-year tenure courtesy of collusion between the all-powerful military and the presidents of the time, who had the constitutional powers (instituted during military rule in the 1980s) to dismiss governments prematurely. It is quite striking how openly allegations of manipulation have been hurled at the military and judiciary in the run up to this election. In that sense, the situation signifies a regression, not progression.

How did the corruption conviction of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who leads the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), influence the election campaign?

Colin Cookman: The fallout from Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification from office in April 2017 in a court case stemming from allegations of undeclared business and family real estate assets, and his conviction and sentencing to jail earlier this month, has driven Pakistani political dynamics for the past year and set the tenor for the election campaign. Deprived of its eponymous party chief as a headliner, the PML-N struggled to mobilize sizeable crowds or supporters for its campaign. Beginning earlier this spring and accelerating in the run-up to the polls, the party also faced multiple defections of its former legislators to the PTI and other parties, particularly in south Punjab and in Balochistan. 

Sharif, now imprisoned on a 10-year sentence, still faces multiple corruption charges, as does his daughter Maryam Nawaz and his brother former Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif, who officially leads the party. The question of when and who the laws are applied to in Pakistan is generally more instructive than the content of the law itself, and for both voters and candidates, Sharif’s conviction was likely interpreted as a signal of the likely election outcome, driving either defections or suppressing turnout.

How has violence impacted the electoral process?

Yusuf: Not to trivialize the implications of violence, but the truth is that it has had a fringe influence even though there have been major terrorist attacks that have successfully targeted political candidates. Pakistani people have gone through so much violence over the past decade that they are largely desensitized to sporadic episodes of terrorism. For instance, most people I have talked to use the last elections in 2013 as the benchmark and rightly argue that the fear factor due to violence in this election was much lower. Also, violence this time round wasn’t as blatantly targeted against left-leaning parties as it was in 2013 and thus there isn’t as much of a case to be made in terms of biasing the election outcomes.

What role did Pakistan’s powerful military play in the elections?

Cookman: The Pakistani military is a dominant force in the country, both in terms of setting internal and external security policy priorities, and in shaping domestic politics and as a player in the economy. After ruling the country for about half its independent history, the military has not played an overt executive role since the departure of then-president and former chief of army staff Pervez Musharraf in 2009, but it continues to play a substantial role behind the scenes. 

The army deployed more than 370,000 soldiers to provide security at polling stations around the country during these elections—more than five times the amount it deployed during the last national elections in 2013. The army also assisted in the national census in the spring of 2017 that was used as a basis for drawing new constituency boundaries at the start of this year.

Beyond this substantial role in the administration of the elections, Pakistani politicians—most prominently but not exclusively from the PML-N—accused the military of intervening behind the scenes to coerce their candidates into defecting from the party or otherwise reduce their campaign activity. In the week prior to the election, an Islamabad High Court judge accused the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military’s intelligence agency, of intervening in judicial proceedings to delay appeals by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif against his conviction. Sharif had earlier accused the military of seeking to oust his government due to civil-military tensions over control of Pakistan’s approach toward its neighbors India and Afghanistan.

What ramifications could the elections have for U.S.-Pakistani relations?

Cookman: Regardless of the exact outcome, the elections are liable to complicate already-strained U.S. relations with Pakistan. Although civilian politicians have had limited influence over the country’s security and foreign policy—where the military and civil service bureaucracy have forcefully asserted their autonomy and control—potential incoming prime minister Imran Khan has been a vocal opponent of U.S. policies toward the region in the past, and could clash with a Trump administration that has already shown a willingness to take a hard line on Pakistan. In an initial victory speech on Thursday, Khan offered conciliatory remarks toward the U.S. and regional neighbors, however.

Although provisional results at this stage suggest that the PTI will likely be able to form a stable ruling coalition together with a few smaller parties, the PML-N and other opposition parties have alleged fraud and mismanagement of the results, and their response to the elections remains to be seen. A highly contested outcome could also disrupt the PTI’s ability to govern effectively, should the opposition launch sustained protest of the sort mounted by the PTI against the PML-N after the 2013 elections. 

U.S. officials have been largely noncommittal during the pre-election period, and given the stakes of regional security concerns are likely to seek to establish a working relationship with whichever party comes to power. But the next government will face substantial challenges—including deteriorating foreign currency reserves that may necessitate a new International Monetary Fund bailout at the outset of its tenure—that a divided or weakened government may have trouble resolving.

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