February 12, 2024

IntelBrief: Political Turmoil Rattles Pakistan’s Elections as Fears of Further Violence Mount

AP Photo/Fareed Khan

Bottom Line Up Front

  • With results now in from Pakistan’s general election, where voting began last Thursday, many have been surprised by the strong showing of supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan.
  • Pakistan’s general elections were plagued by terrorist violence and overshadowed by the absence of the country’s most popular politician, former prime minister Imran Khan, who has been imprisoned and disqualified from public office.
  • Various groups, including Islamic State affiliates, launched deadly attacks against parties and candidates across the Pakistani political spectrum in the days and weeks ahead of the polling.
  • With Imran Khan out of the picture, the contest for head of state fell to the leaders of two political dynasties: former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, although the two parties are expected to work together, despite lingering distrust in Pakistan’s political institutions.

With results now in from Pakistan’s general election, where voting began last Thursday, many have been surprised by the strong showing of supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan. Preliminary counts showed victories for 92 independents (primarily Khan supporters), with 77 seats going to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and 54 going to the third major party, the Pakistan People’s Party, or P.P.P. The election results stunned many Pakistan watchers and set the scene for a contentious few weeks ahead, with accusations of vote rigging and growing concerns over more politically motivated violence and terrorism. Not only were Pakistan’s general elections last week plagued by politically motivated terrorist violence across the country, but in the run-up, the country’s most popular politician, former prime minister Imran Khan, was ruled ineligible for the prime minister’s race. Already jailed, the beleaguered Khan received multiple lengthy new prison sentences in recent weeks, while his disqualification from office was extended to ten years. Meanwhile, a wide array of terrorist groups set their sights on an equally diverse set of Pakistani political candidates and parties, killing dozens across the country.

The election has been shrouded in violence. As voters went to the polls last Thursday, at least four police officers providing security for the election in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region were killed in a blast, and gunmen injured several others. The day prior, two separate Islamic State-claimed bombings – targeting an independent candidate and the office of the religious Jamiat Ulema Islam party – killed at least 30 people in Balochistan province. A candidate affiliated with the beleaguered Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party – founded by the deposed former prime minister Khan – was shot and killed the prior week in an attack claimed by Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK), marking the second candidate killed in a month. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), participated in a series of attacks on the homes and offices of Pakistan’s People’s Party candidates a day after a blast at PTI rally in Balochistan. These relentless attacks indicate Pakistani terrorism trends are not improving: 2023 marked the deadliest year for terrorism in the country since 2016, according to data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

Violence aside, the prospects of a free and fair election in Pakistan were already highly dubious. Already serving a three-year prison term, Khan was barred from public office for a decade (he had previously been barred for five years) and assigned three separate additional prison sentences, the longest of which will see him jailed for another 14 years unless he can successfully appeal against the ruling. His latest charges ranged from violating marital law to corruption and mishandling state secrets. Yet Khan remains the country’s most popular politician, according to a Gallup poll published in January. In an innovative response to his removal from public life, his party used artificial intelligence to generate videos of Khan delivering speeches based on written text he had submitted to lawyers from jail. Going into the election, spectators assessed that his PTI party had been significantly attenuated. Party leaders and employees were widely prosecuted after Khan supporters participated in a major riot in May. Many of those leaders resigned from the party after being released from jail. The party’s ability to campaign and its candidates’ ability to affiliate themselves with the party on the ballot had also been highly restricted. Despite all these setbacks, PTI outperformed most expectations, which also hints at a demographic fissure between younger Khan supporters and older voters more supportive of establishment candidates and political parties.

With Khan disqualified, the contest for prime minister was between two Pakistani political dynasties. The country’s longest-serving prime minister and leader of the PML-N, Nawaz Sharif, was considered the front-runner heading into the election. Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, and brother, Shehbaz Sharif, are also considered political forces. The Sharifs’ main competition is Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who heads the Pakistan People’s Party. The son of an assassinated former prime minister, Bhutto also served as foreign minister in the caretaker government that succeeded Khan. Though the country’s politically powerful military initially backed Khan’s 2018 election, the military was believed to be backing Sharif for this race. While Sharif’s own political future was also once widely considered hopeless, his recent political resurrection suggests Khan’s current political and legal destitution need not be permanent. Like Khan, Sharif had also previously been ousted from the prime minister’s office and disqualified from office, yet was allowed to return from self-exile in the United Kingdom and had his own corruption conviction overturned months before the recent election. Still, the parties are expected to work together in a governing coalition, although lingering distrust in the system will continue to be a perennial challenge in Pakistan.

Since breaking with his military backers over who should take over Pakistan’s formidable intelligence agency, Khan has accused the military of not only being behind the no-confidence vote that pushed him out of office, but also of plotting a failed assassination attempt against him. Khan also set his sights on the United States after a leaked diplomatic cable suggested that U.S. officials, aggravated at Pakistan’s perceived neutrality vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine, had threatened to isolate the country if Khan survived the no-confidence vote. With Khan planning to appeal last week’s rulings, and with questions abound about potential due process violations of the proceedings, some legal analysts see an opening for him to receive relief eventually – if Pakistan’s military factions will allow it.

Beyond its domestic political strife, Pakistan also faces elevated tensions with Iran and Afghanistan due to the threats of hostile militant groups across its borders. In response to an Iranian airstrike against BLA militants on Pakistani territory, Pakistan delivered its own strike into Iranian territory last month. Subsequently, unidentified gunmen killed nine Pakistani laborers in the Iranian city that Pakistan had targeted with its strikes. Additionally, since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Pakistan has accused the group of allowing the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – also known as the Pakistani Taliban – to launch attacks into Pakistan from Afghan soil. While Khan made concerted efforts to negotiate with the TTP during his tenure as prime minister, the government that succeeded him resumed an aggressive stance towards the group. Not only did it launch airstrikes into Afghanistan, but as relations soured, in October, Pakistan announced it would deport all undocumented migrants from the country, putting over one million of the four million of the country’s Afghan residents at risk. Despite these security concerns, the country’s economic woes may be its most potent electoral issue beyond party allegiances. Unemployment has nearly doubled in Pakistan since 2018, inflation is at a 50-year-high, and in 2023, the country’s economy shrunk as its gross domestic product decreased by 0.6 percent, according to the World Bank.