Surprisingly, candidates aligned with former Prime Minister Imran Khan won the most seats in Pakistan’s elections. But while voters “have shown their faith in democracy,” the lack of a strong mandate for any specific leader or institution “doesn’t necessarily bode well for [Pakistan’s] stability,” says USIP’s Tamanna Salikuddin.
U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.
Laura Coates: Joining us now is Tamanna Salikuddin, the director of the South Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace, where she oversees their work in Pakistan, and broader South Asia. She joins us now Tamanna. Welcome, and good morning. How are you?
Tamanna Salikuddin: Good morning. Good to be with you. Thank you.
Laura Coates: I'm glad that you're here. Bring us up to speed. We've been focused so much here on what's going on Capitol Hill as a nation. And of course, you've been looking to foreign policy as it relates to Ukraine and Israel. But the news cycle has not broadened to be far more inclusive. And there are so many things happening, particularly in the area that you focus primarily on. Bring us a little bit up to speed on what's happening now with the Pakistani elections.
Tamanna Salikuddin: Yeah, well, we're paying attention to other things. This is the year of elections, more than half the world is going to the polls, including the United States, Pakistan had its general elections last Thursday. And you know, most observers before the election thought these would be largely pro-forma with a party that would come into power that was sort of blessed by the military establishment. And yet there have been very surprising results, in last Thursday's elections. Actually, the election commission just finally announced the final results yesterday. And, you know, independent candidates have won the largest number of seats in the National Assembly. And those independent candidates are actually largely aligned with the former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
So, Pakistan has really been in political confusion, uncertainty, since the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan in April 2022. Through a vote of no confidence, and since then, Imran Khan has faced a series of court cases for which he's been in jail. He just got convictions in three of them, and also even his party symbol, the 'cricket bat,' as he's a famous cricketer, was barred from being part of the election. So, most people thought all of these obstacles would lead people not to vote for Imran Khan, and that other parties, namely the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, would win the vast majority of the seats. In what is a very surprising result, the Pakistani people have come out, shown, I think their faith in democracy, and voted for these independent candidates aligned with Imran Khan. And so, instead of sort of an end to the political uncertainty in Pakistan, you have more political uncertainty. Imran Khan's party is claiming that there is vote rigging, they are vowing to take to the streets and protest. But it looks like there probably will be former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, which won the second number of seats and then other parties would form some sort of coalition government in Pakistan. All of this doesn't necessarily bode well for stability in that country.
Laura Coates: And with respect to Imran Khan, he had been found guilty in several cases right, prior to the election could not contest the elections. Is that because he is currently imprisoned? Is it because of the of the policy? Explain a little bit more? Because obviously ahead, you know, we're looking at the impact of a legal case on one's candidacy. It's very different there. But there are some similarities.
Tamanna Salikuddin: Yeah, I mean, he's been in jail for several months, but just recently, he's been found guilty in three major cases. He has, you know, his sentence, He's appealing all of these sentences, of course, but his sentencing is over 30 years in prison. So, currently he, you know, is in prison and not allowed to contest in elections, but that didn't stop people aligned with him to run as independents and win. Especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, that's his home province, and then also in parts of Punjab, the biggest province in Pakistan. So, it's a really surprising result. I think from the United States perspective, it is it's a tough place to be. And we and I think other countries who are looking for stability in Pakistan, we're hoping that this election would lead to a mandate that would allow some modicum of stability and allow Pakistani policymakers really focus on their crises of economy. They have a near failing economy, they need to get a new IMF program by the spring and then security. They've had a sharp rise in terrorism since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, they have the Pakistani Taliban, which continues to attack across the country. And so, the political drama is such that they really can't focus on any of those very hard issues.
Laura Coates: In terms of the fraud claims, and election integrity, I know there was mobile cell service, and the Internet was shut down as well, due to security concerns on the day of the election. Is that right?
Tamanna Salikuddin: Yeah, so people weren't able to, you know, poll workers can't find out where the polling places, people can't check their phones, you know, and now as digital age, everybody uses their mobile phones. And cell service and internet on phones was shut down. And yet, the voter turnout was pretty good, actually. So, people defied the odds, and came out and voted, you know, in large numbers.
Laura Coates: Well, given this focus, as you say, I mean, just hearing the domestic political issues and the domestic politics. I mean, what attention can be given to as you've written before, about the twin crises facing Pakistan, like the economy, perhaps a rise in terrorism? How does one focus on either of those extraordinarily important things?
Tamanna Salikuddin: I think it proves very difficult. This political crisis has been all consuming. And so, you have every stripe of policymaker, whether you talk about military, bureaucracy, civilian politicians, they're really just focused on the day-to-day politics, right. And now they're going to be appealing, there's going to be a lot of cases, there's going to be protests. So, there isn't a lot of policy space to focus on terrorism or the economy. But moreover, both terrorism and the economy need really hard choices. On the economic side, they need really strict reforms, there's going to be economic pain, to solve the problems. And you can't really do that unless you have a political mandate, unless you have the buy in of the populace. And no leader right now, perhaps Imran Khan, because he's in jail. But no leader or any institution has that buy in of the Pakistani people to do what is needed to fix their economy and to address the terrorism crisis.
Laura Coates: So, important to hear this, I wonder what impact or influence the United States is having on any of this? Is our government at all involved in trying to oversee or monitor these elections and beyond?
Tamanna Salikuddin: I mean, look the State Department has come out with statements. I think a lot of leaders on Capitol Hill have weeded out concerns about the elections, but I think the U.S. has been burned. You know, we were, I think, in a conspiracy theory falsely implicated the U.S. of being involved in the plot to oust Imran Khan. And so, the U.S. is very wary of getting involved in this election on either side. You know, we want there to be elections. We want there to be democracy, we want an elected government to go forward and deal with the problems in Pakistan. But I think U.S. fingerprints will just make this messier, not better. And so, the U.S. is maybe a little bit standing at a distance. Maybe that that's not what Pakistani people want. They want the U.S. to come in and intercede on their behalf. But, because there is no one clear path forward, I think U.S. policymakers may be a little bit loath to get involved directly in this.
Laura Coates: Really, really important to hear all of this and help us break through. I appreciate it so much getting us up to speed, Tamanna Salikuddin. Thank you so much for your time today. I appreciate it.
Tamanna Salikuddin: Thank you so much for having me.