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Why Pakistan’s election had such an ambiguous outcome

- August 9, 2018
A portrait of Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, is on display near Khan’s residence, in Islamabad. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

Five years ago, Pakistan celebrated its first peaceful transition between two civilian governments. By contrast, its July election has greatly disappointed many observers.

The former cricket player and celebrity Imran Khan will be the next prime minister, defeating the head of the former ruling party, Nawaz Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. But the military allegedly played an outsize role in the election by preventing the PML-N and other parties from campaigning effectively. Before the election, Nawaz Sharif was dismissed as prime minister and imprisoned on corruption charges that many see as politically motivated.

And yet even with allegations of widespread manipulation before the election, Khan, the candidate presumably preferred by the military, won only an ambiguous victory. His party, the PTI, won 116 of 270 seats contested. That is 21 short of the full majority needed to form a noncoalition government. Sharif’s still-powerful PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which came in third, won 64 and 43 seats, respectively. This ambivalent result reflects four different visions of governance among the Pakistani electorate.

1. Voting for patronage

The supporters of the PML-N and similar political parties see government’s central role as distributing discretionary resources, or patronage, to their constituent populations. Patronage in Pakistan comes in different varieties. Politicians can influence bureaucrats to approve loans for tractors or tube wells, to build roads or repair irrigation canals, to settle disputes on property or contracts, or to provide licenses or government contracts for potentially lucrative commercial activities.

In the wealthy agricultural areas and industrial towns of northern and central Punjab, the demographic center of the country, politicians from the PML-N, the PTI and smaller parties compete for key groups’ support by promising to deliver such spoils. In the poorer and more rural areas of southern Punjab and Sindh, the PPP competes on patronage delivery with the newly formed Grand Democratic Alliance and political notables that have joined the PTI. The PML-N won 52 of 98 competitive contests in central and northern Punjab, while the PPP won 33 of 37 seats in rural Sindh. That is because each of the two parties has a strong record of delivering patronage to its base.

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2. Voting against corruption

Throughout the country, but especially in urban areas, voters see the government as primarily the guarantor of public ethics and fairness. Those voting for transparency and accountability support Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, which for 20 years has crusaded against corruption in Pakistani politics and society.

Many Pakistanis, particularly young urbanites with ties abroad, see Pakistan as sclerotic, weighed down by corrupt interests and dynastic politics. Many voted to create a government that could dissolve the structures that constrain those who are young and ambitious but not “connected.” This politics calls to mind Narendra Modi’s appeal to millions of Indian voters who feel their path in life blocked by corruption in government and society.

As a result of this sentiment in Pakistan, the PTI won 42 of 76 seats in urban constituencies, with these seats accounting for a third of Khan’s plurality. The party also won 15 of 21 seats in the largest city, Karachi, because a paramilitary campaign against urban violence and organized crime challenged the entrenched and notoriously corrupt political machine of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, allowing other parties to compete there without fear of intimidation.

Interestingly, the parties that are normally thought of as the most moralistic, the Islamic parties of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition, received 12 seats. Historically, these parties have not had much electoral success, focusing rather on the politics of protest. Meanwhile, despite Khan’s colorful personal life, he is seen as a symbol of political purity.

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The combination of Khan’s stance against corruption and his support from nondemocratic forces seems hypocritical. But anti-corruption politics in South Asia and elsewhere has an undemocratic streak. Certainly, there is little evidence that PTI supporters have objected to the military’s outsize role in the party’s victory, because Khan and the military are, for now, allied against the dynasties that have dominated Pakistani politics.

3. Voting for security

Attacks by the Taliban in Pakistan for more than a decade now have heightened the salience of security for some voters. The military’s successful execution of a counterinsurgency campaign has met with broad public approval. The new protective role for the military and the legitimacy of the security state may have translated into provisional support for Khan’s PTI, which many believe is allied with the military. In the regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which have been hit hardest by the insurgency, the PTI won 36 of 51 seats.

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4. Voting against the elite

Last, those who are the most marginal in Pakistani society — excluded minorities, tribal groups, landless laborers — vote because this is the only way they can have collective power over, and receive recognition from, the elite who control the government. Political scientists Amit Ahuja and Pradeep Chhibber have argued that in India, the most downtrodden are voting not for any particular policy but against being ignored and forgotten. That explains the South Asian phenomenon of anti-incumbency, in which voters in this category routinely reject those in power.

The inconclusive results of the 2018 election may be attributable to this last group of voters. They voted against the then-ruling PPP in 2013; they have now voted against the PML-N after its five years in charge. They might turn on the PTI in the future.

These elections are thus not just a function of the intervention of the military but also of the conflicting ideas and visions of Pakistanis toward their state. If we dismiss the powerful signals that 50 million Pakistanis are sending by their votes, we lose any sense of the political realities facing citizens in many developing countries where a more meaningful democratic politics is still distant.

Adnan Naseemullah is lecturer in international relations at King’s College London and the author of “Development after Statism” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Pradeep Chhibber is professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley and the co-author most recently of “Ideology and Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2018).