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Pakistan goes to the polls this week. Here’s what to watch.

Four experts on Pakistani politics share their insights on the leading parties and candidates, voter turnout, and election integrity.

image of election officials hand-counting ballots in Pakistan's 2018 election. Pakistanis are voting on Feb. 8, 2024 in an election filled with drama.
Election officials count ballots during Pakistan’s 2018 election (cc) VOA, via Wikimedia Commons

Pakistan is set to vote on Feb. 8, 2024. These elections take place in the context of numerous military, intelligence, and law enforcement actions seemingly designed to weaken the ability of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) to compete (see recent New York Times, Guardian, and Al Jazeera reports for a sampling of the allegations). 

The PTI was founded by former Pakistani cricket star Imran Khan, who served as Pakistan’s prime minister from 2018 to 2022. But Khan was brought down by a parliamentary no-confidence vote that he alleges was orchestrated by the Pakistan military at the behest of the United States. 

Since August 2023, Pakistan has been governed by a caretaker government. Many expect the PMLN, the Pakistan Muslim League party headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to be the likely beneficiary of the coming elections, though Sharif has had his own trouble with the military in past decades.

In the last month, Khan has been convicted by different Pakistani courts of corruption, mishandling classified information, and violating Pakistani marriage law with his current wife. The convictions resulted in sentences of years in prison, large fines, and disqualification from contesting elections. 

Looking beyond the political drama

The headlines aside, these elections are taking place alongside real challenges in Pakistan. Internal violence, while not as severe as it was in the 2010s, is growing, likely as a result of a growing safe haven in Afghanistan. Relations with all of its neighbors except China are troubled, and Pakistan exchanged air strikes with Iran last month. While no longer in deep crisis, the Pakistani economy has structural issues that leave the country heavily reliant on large external loans and grants. And Pakistan is on the frontlines of climate change. Pakistan’s major cities are now routinely subject to severe flooding, which has multiple causes but is likely exacerbated by growing global temperatures.

To set the stage for the Feb. 8 elections, I asked four leading experts what they were watching and expecting. Here are their insights.

Sarah Khan, assistant professor of political science, Yale University

On Feb. 8, I expect that a crucial and delayed step in the process of transfer of power away from a caretaker government that has overstayed its time and overstepped its mandate will be completed. However, we must consider the far from ideal circumstances in which this process will take place. Due to the environment of repression and pre-poll rigging, I hesitate to say that this election will transfer power to a “democratically elected” government in any meaningful way. Amid restrictions on political organizing, campaigning, and candidacy and clear efforts to thwart free access to information, it is hard to see any outcome as a democratic expression of popular will. 

I will be looking closely at voter turnout numbers, which I see as indicative of citizens’ trust and engagement with the electoral process. The last elections in 2018 saw a turnout of 51%, a drop from 55% in 2013, and I fear that turnout will be further dampened due to the repressive circumstances. Pakistan also has one of the largest gender gaps in turnout among democracies around the world. As disengagement and apathy will likely affect both men and women, it also means a lost opportunity at closing this gap.

Zoha Waseem, assistant professor of sociology, University of Warwick

Anything is possible, but I expect the numbers will work in PMLN’s favor with a weak coalition government between PMLN and allies (including the Deobandi Sunni religious party JUI-F political party and the Karachi-centered ethnic Mohajir party, the MQM). 

The PTI is arguably more popular, but will suffer at the polls. There has been repression of its voters and workers following the riots and violence after Khan’s arrest on May 9, 2023. The fragmentation of party leadership, the ongoing legal and judicial onslaughts that landed Khan and other leaders in prison, and the overall environment of censorship has collectively prevented the party from effectively campaigning and mobilizing voters. The courts have even said the party’s candidates cannot contest under its party symbol (a cricket bat), making it harder for voters to identify them on a ballot. 

Voter turnout will also likely be low, although some speculate voters may cast sympathy votes for PTI-affiliated candidates. Either way, we are likely to witness an establishment-engineered electoral victory for Nawaz, without a clear PMLN majority. The stage will then be set for hard bargaining between mainstream political parties, independent candidates (including those affiliated with the PTI), and the “electables” [dynastic or other elite politicians]. The military will play a central role in these negotiations, ensuring that its interests can be protected in the foreseeable future.

On Feb. 8 and after, I’ll be looking out for (i) electoral violence, (ii) voter turnout, focusing on the young electorate, and (iii) voting patterns beyond candidates running for the national assembly [Pakistan’s parliament].

First, we have already seen violence between PPP and MQM workers in Karachi, the attack on independent candidate (affiliated with PTI) Rehan Zeb, and police violence against PTI workers during recent demonstrations. I’ll be observing how and to what extent disgruntled party workers and voters take to the streets, especially if disinformation, allegations of rigging, or general confusion at the voting booths incites agitation, and what sort of heavy-handed response law enforcement agencies will take, if at all. 

Second, I’ll be observing whether young voters (who make up almost half of the electorate) will demonstrate disinterest in the voting process, due to the lack of perceived legitimacy of these polls, or will come out in frustration against the clampdown on PTI and Imran Khan. 

And I’ll be following how votes are cast in Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan; and in the city of Karachi. In Balochistan, recent protest movements suggest mistrust in mainstream parties and national-level politicians. In Karachi, the political landscape has fragmented over the past decade following a carefully engineered security operation. It will be important to map how Pakistan’s peripheries and its largest city vote.

Yasser Kureshi, departmental lecturer in South Asian studies, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford

While it is hard to predict how the election will turn out, I do expect that independent unaffiliated candidates may win a significant share of seats. In a fragmented parliament, mainstream parties will likely rely on co-opting successful independent candidates and small parties to form a government. And unless there is an unprecedented surge in voter turnout, the PTI, in spite of enjoying popular support, is likely to remain in the political wilderness. The party’s leadership remains out of favor with the military leadership and the party faces widespread repression.

All this means that major parties will seek military support, either to form a government by wooing independent candidates and small parties who do not want to run afoul of the military – or, in PTI’s case, to return to competitive electoral politics. In short, the military’s preeminent place as the “kingmaker” in Pakistan’s hybrid politics will be consolidated.

I will be closely watching out for who is winning provincial elections and forming provincial governments. These provincial elections are crucial for parties to control channels of patronage that secure the future loyalty of electoral constituencies and vote banks. Therefore, I will be looking at provincial election results in Punjab and Khyber Pakthunkwa to see how well PMLN candidates do in Punjab and how well PTI-affiliated candidates do in KP, as these will be indicators of whether PMLN can reclaim its dominance in Punjab and PTI can retain its dominance in KP, all of which will shape their long-term stability and condition the way they bargain with the military.

Also, in an election that few expect to be free and fair, I will be looking at what legal disputes emerge regarding the conduct of the election on the day. Allegations of pre-poll rigging and poll-day electoral violations will shape the petitions that then go before the courts, and form the basis for how Pakistan’s powerful superior judiciary will influence the dynamics and stability of the post-election political dispensation.

Asfandyar Mir, senior expert, U.S. Institute of Peace

Pakistan’s domestic political instability is a matter of concern for the United States, China, and Gulf powers. All these countries desire stability in Pakistan, as they have vital and sometimes conflicting interests in the country. And these interests have been under stress due to the domestic and economic turmoil since 2022. Therefore, they will hope that the political crisis finds a resolution in the aftermath of the election. The potential return of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN, which is being tipped as likely to prevail in the election, will be welcomed so long as it brings stability. 

To that end, major capitals will pay attention to the incoming government’s management of the country’s economy – and hope that the political leadership appoints competent ministers to run the economy. Approaching the IMF for a new program in a timely fashion could help prevent the repeat of the near-default situation Pakistan was in from 2022 to 2023.

Editors’ note: An earlier version of this piece referred to elections in Gilgit Baltistan. Those occur on a different schedule and that reference has been removed in the current version.