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Electoral Turmoil and Public Distrust: Pakistan’s Deepening Political Crisis

Everything started on election day with the silencing of mobile phone services across Pakistan. Then, in Rawalpindi, the city next to the capital Islamabad and the central base of the army, an election commission officer claimed there was fraud in the ballot boxes, leading the Pakistani people, who have been rebelling against the corrupt system in the country for years, to take to the streets once again.

The recent general elections in Pakistan created deep uncertainty on the country’s political scene. The results, which did not determine a clear winner, and especially the allegations of fraud in the ballot boxes, led to intense debate in the country. Protests organized against the reports of irregularities coming from many regions with the opening of the ballot boxes caused serious tension, especially in the Balochistan province.

The announcement by the head of the election commission in Rawalpindi that fraud was committed in the election results raised serious concerns about the credibility of the elections nationwide. This announcement damaged trust in the democratic processes and led to an increase in suspicions about the election results among the public.

Although the interim government in Pakistan claimed to have suspended mobile phone services due to security concerns, the Election Commission and other relevant units and ministries were unaware of this decision taken the day before the election. Similar to the discussions about cats entering transformers during elections in Turkey, these interruptions sparked debates about the manipulation of election results under the pretext of communication cuts.

Although the fraud in the ballot results and the irregularities on election day were not the first in the country’s history, political parties and leaders began to gather around a table within a few weeks to reach a consensus. Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), had launched campaigns against the games played by the army for years and continued its pressure on the government through protests.

The race to obtain a majority in the parliament continues with negotiations among major parties. PTI, which became the largest bloc in the assembly, is not recognized as the winner of the election results by the other two major parties. In this chaos, there is an effort to form a coalition government led by Shehbaz Sharif of PML-N, consisting of six parties. PTI, which nominated Omar Ayub as the prime ministerial candidate to form the government, is now preparing for the role of the opposition as it could not find the necessary majority.

Ten days after the general elections, PTI announced that its independent candidates would join the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) to form a government at the federal level. PTI had lost its political party status by the decision of the Pakistan Election Commission. PTI is also conducting a legal battle in courts by objecting to election results in many constituencies. SIC is known as a group of theological moderates who can counter the influence of extremist groups.

Pakistan’s fate has been intertwined with less democracy and more autocracy, martial law, and open or covert military interventions. For half of its history, it was directly governed by military tutelage, and in the remaining periods not under direct military control, the army had long arms in redesigning politics.

It is known that the removal of former Prime Minister Imran Khan from office was carried out on the orders of former army commander General Qamar Javed Bajwa, just like the interference in election results. However, the election fraud weakens the country’s power structures, eroding the public’s faith in the system. The biggest problem arising from this last general election is not actually the economy, but the loss of public trust in the state.

Even if a coalition government is formed under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif’s party PML-N, it is questionable how stable it will be. Already, the intense negotiations for the cabinet among coalition partners reveal that a patchwork political arrangement, forced into a marriage of convenience among political rivals, may come to power. This means that the future for Pakistan will not be easy.

Pakistan faces a heavy burden of debt. One of the priorities of the new government will be to negotiate a new and broader program with the IMF. For this, the government will have to commit to implementing tough economic measures. Discussions related to the questionable election are unlikely to end soon. Despite efforts to regain public trust, how long a weak coalition government supported within the system can remain strong is already a subject of criticism. The increase in political chaos will further worsen the country’s already fragile economy, bringing wide-ranging negative effects on the future of the country.

Pakistan’s fundamental problem is that, regardless of who the civilian government leader is, control over the country’s internal policies, political issues, and geo-strategic trajectory is in the hands of the army. Civil governments have been forced to resign, albeit gently, every time they fell out of favor with the established order.

Since the day Imran Khan was ousted by a vote of no confidence in parliament in April 2022, unprecedented events have been occurring in Pakistan. The efforts to annihilate Imran Khan and PTI were as ruthless as the challenge was strong and lasting.

Never before in the history of Pakistan has there been such a fierce battle between the most entrenched institution and the most popular leader. Worse, no civilian politician had ever dared to challenge the current order and emerged victorious. Surprisingly, for the first time, the relationship between an institution and a political leader is being written on the streets of Pakistan.

The problem is not just the direct rule of the military. The real issue is the reality of a trigger-happy army not often confined to the barracks, even if there is no military dictatorship. Civil governments come, serve, and disappear over time, according to the desires determined by military institutions. The gravity of this situation cannot be better explained by the fact that none of the 23 prime ministers who have served in Pakistan have been able to complete their term.

In the political history of the country, there is a story of being caught between the weakness of civilian administration and the pressure of military authority. The shadow of the army makes civilian governments short-lived, while stability based on democracy cannot be achieved.

The fragility of political leaders and the decisive influence of military institutions constantly complicate steps taken in the search for stability.

The political crisis stands at a point too deep to be resolved today. At the helm of the new government will likely be Shehbaz Sharif again. Asif Ali Zardari, known as “Mr. 10 Percent” and who has already received enough support for the presidency, the husband of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is on the agenda.

It will not be easy to re-establish public trust in the new era led by these political actors, whose names are associated with corruption. Otherwise, the Pakistani people will not be able to part with the struggle they have been fighting in the streets for years to defend their democratic rights for a long time. This situation could become one of the biggest crises the country faces. The atmosphere of uncertainty and the issue of trust could shake the democratic foundations of Pakistan. Pakistan may have to struggle for a longer time to cope with political turmoil and public anxieties.

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YÜKSEL DURGUT is a journalist with a primary focus on global politics and foreign affairs. He serves as the Foreign Relations Director of the International Journalists Association e.V. and holds the position of Editor-in-Chief at Journalist Post.


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