Experts react: Imran Khan’s party outperformed expectations. What will this mean for Pakistan’s next government?

It was a shock to the system. Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was barred from formally running nominees under its own name, but PTI-aligned independent candidates nonetheless massively outperformed expectations in national elections on February 8, leading in a plurality, but not a majority, of seats in the National Assembly. Independent candidates representing PTI, the party of imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan, received strong support from young voters in an election marred by a violent campaign season and election-day disruptions in internet and phone service. With uncertainty over whether PTI-aligned independents or former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PMLN will be able to form a coalition, what does the uncertainty surrounding the election mean for Pakistan’s future? And what challenges will the next Pakistani government face? 

Our experts deliver their votes below.

Click to jump to an expert analysis:

Shuja Nawaz: The next government must make ‘rapid and revolutionary’ economic changes

Farieha Aziz: Internet and phone network shutdown casts a shadow over the elections

Ali Hasanain: A coalition without Khan’s PTI will lack legitimacy 

Arifa Noor: The PMLN’s only path to power is a ‘weak coalition government’

Ammar Habib Khan: Legacy parties underestimated first-time voters’ challenge to the status quo

Muhammad Faisal: The gap is widening between  the will of the people and the concerns of the state

The next government must make ‘rapid and revolutionary’ economic changes

Pakistan has staged an orderly election that produced a surprise, but despite generally peaceful voting on February 8, inordinate delays in announcing the results and posted results that went against the cumulative numbers coming into public view reek of fixing in selected constituencies. Old habits die hard, it seems. The result most likely will be a weak coalition; a government that may be unable to make, in short order, the tough decisions that Pakistan needs to make on the economy, domestic governance, and foreign relations. Yet, it may not be too late for the powerful military to use its influence for good, by encouraging a transparent and accountable coalition formation process and decision making to set Pakistan on a path of stability and growth. Having done that, it should truly move back to the barracks and publicly withdraw all its serving and retired officers from civilian positions and parastatal organizations. This will further raise appreciation for the military among the general populace.

The election results reflect some key ground realities. Youth have played a major role by coming out in massive numbers. They are 44 percent of the electorate, up to fifty-seven million today. Imprisoning Khan and banning the PTI from running candidates created a powerful group of independents, who accounted for most of the candidates for the National Assembly. Women appeared to come out in droves to vote despite constraints. Turnout mattered a lot. Final numbers will likely show how far it was above the norm of 45-50 percent. The youth also showed the effectiveness of social media in the campaign, especially when coping with official controls on traditional media.

Another lesson that needs to be learned from recognizing the demographic trends in Pakistan today applies to the manner in which Pakistan can deal with its periphery. It is time to bring the disaffected youth of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan into the national conversation and carefully weigh their demands rather than resort to kinetic actions to quell debate and dissent. The new government should take the lead in this direction and be seen as making those decisions rather than outsourcing them to the military.

Finally, it is time to stop kicking the economic can down the road. The new government must make rapid and revolutionary changes in the tax system and administration, including imposing an income tax on agricultural income, slashing subsidies, dissolving state-owned enterprises, reducing the military’s economic footprint (while providing training and healthcare for veterans), and reducing unproductive expenditures, especially on real estate. This will require successfully completing the current International Monetary Fund (IMF) program and preparing a new one. Pakistan has the expertise to populate an effective cabinet to manage the economy and climate issues. This should be job number one for the incoming government.

Shuja Nawaz is a distinguished fellow and founding director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council and author of The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighborhood.

Internet and phone network shutdown casts a shadow over the elections

Mobile internet and phone networks were suspended across the country on election day in Pakistan. This was done despite orders from the Sindh High Court  to ensure uninterrupted connectivity. On the eve of elections, the interior ministry said that if requests were made by provincial governments, as a security measure, networks would be shut down. A day after the elections, in a press conference, caretaker Interior Minister Gohar Ejaz remarked: “We knew there would be noise from every side over the decision, but I would take this decision again if I had to.”

In blatant disregard of the orders by constitutional courts, public outcry, and significant losses reported by businesses due to previous internet disruptions—which have become frequent—local businesses and citizens in Pakistan were held hostage to the whims of those in power.

A critical function of the media and citizen journalism on polling day is a watchdog function: to report irregularities from polling stations. This, of course, was not possible to do live, due to network shutdowns. While social media is now flush with accounts of election-day mishaps, the communication chain on the day of was delayed, hampering the ability to receive information in real time and respond in a timely manner.

The digital sector, which holds promise and offers opportunity, is being stymied by the state’s ad hoc policies for its own narrow, political gains. Every shutdown causes large economic losses. Despite protests from industry and civil society, a dismissive attitude is harbored toward concerns raised—whether monetary or rights-based. A shadow hangs over the elections still with the results yet to be determined. The unfortunate reality is that communication services, the internet, and citizens are likely to be held hostage in the coming days and months.

Farieha Aziz is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

A coalition without Khan’s PTI will lack legitimacy 

What is going on right now was entirely predictable. Five years after Khan was given a leg up in the 2018 election, his party has been stonewalled in moves completely lacking the finesse that could sow doubt in the electorate’s mind as to what has happened. There are immediate political questions yet to be answered: Will Khan’s PTI be allowed to wield influence through candidates it supported but could not formally claim due to a court decision? Will it be able to carve out space by forming a provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and possibly in opposition in Punjab? Or will it be successfully able to challenge an election utterly bereft of legitimacy through peaceful street politics?

Regardless of the outcome, a government formed without giving Khan’s PTI the space it claimed on election day will lack legitimacy. Uncertainty over economic policy in Pakistan has been measured to be three times higher today than it was a decade ago, and unless the government—whatever its shape or form—can expect to work on five-year time horizons, it is unlikely that this uncertainty will abate. The February 8 election has proven that this stability can only come through democracy, and this will have been noted by the many creditors Pakistan desperately needs to woo to put its faltering economy back on an even keel.

In a 1779 letter to James Warren, George Washington wrote: “Unless we can return a little more to first principles, & act a little more upon patriotic ground, I do not know. . . what may be the issue of the contest.” The question for Pakistan is whether it is willing to learn anything from history.

Ali Hasanain is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

The PMLN’s only path to power is a ‘weak coalition government’

A surprisingly strong performance for PTI-backed candidates in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has upended an unmanageable mandate for Pakistan’s military establishment. Last-minute twists have given the establishment favorite, the PMLN, a fighting chance to form a government, but even if it takes power, it will still have to form a weak coalition government with multiple allies. To expect this new version of a coalition government propped up by the military to prove more effective than the last two coalition governments (which were also formed by the military establishment) is a case of hope triumphing over experience. With each of these governments, the paralysis in governance has and will continue to grow. 

The new government will also have to grapple with a legitimacy crisis as well as security and economic challenges. The Tehreek-e Taliban has re-emerged, better equipped and more savvy. And the political engineering in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa might deprive the military of much-needed support from the people of the province. The growing gap between the populace and state has already led to a protracted insurgency in Balochistan. The next IMF program will come with harsh conditions, including demands to restructure Pakistan’s sovereign debt, which will prove difficult if not impossible for an unnatural coalition. The military will have its hands full governing from behind the scenes as well as running the economy and managing security. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the last years of the Musharraf regime, where the military seemed to have lost its support base as it faced an array of similar problems. This time, however, each of the challenges Pakistan faces is even more intractable nearly twenty years later. 

Arifa Noor is a journalist and anchor at Dawn.

Legacy parties underestimated first-time voters’ challenge to the status quo

Legacy parties underestimated the demographic change currently underway in Pakistan, with an increasing number of first-time voters who continue to challenge the status quo.

As the dust settles, it seems that the new government will be a fragile alliance that will be expected to roll out macroeconomic stabilization measures, starting with a new IMF program and fiscal consolidation, while trying to balance growth. A fragile alliance will continue to threaten the emergence of a longer-term policy framework that can instill some macroeconomic stability in an environment plagued by double-digit inflation and sluggish economic growth rates.

Ammar Habib Khan is a nonresident senior fellow at the South Asia Center.

The gap is widening between the will of the people and the concerns of the state

The delayed general elections have just deepened Pakistan’s domestic instability. The widening gap between the will of the people and the concerns of the state will only add to ongoing turmoil in a polarized society.

Meanwhile, a weak coalition is set to emerge at the center. Any governing alliance will be clouded by its lack of popular legitimacy. This will have a direct impact on the decision-making ability of the next government on dealing with crucial economic and security challenges. It will have to navigate the competing pressures of managing an unstable economy beset by skyrocketing inflation through tough and unpopular decisions while keeping the governing coalition intact. The first task of the new government will be to negotiate an IMF program to avert default while securing crucial financial support from foreign partners. However, the implementation of the next IMF program will remain embroiled in messy politics. Meanwhile, stabilizing Pakistan’s borders and securing internal peace will remain uphill tasks. It will not be sufficient for the new government to simply continue to muddle through.

Muhammad Faisal is a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of Technology Sydney.

Further reading

Related Experts: Shuja Nawaz, Farieha Aziz, Ali Hasanain, and Ammar Habib Khan

Image: Volunteers for former Prime Minister Imran Khan's party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) look on as they watch results on TV screens after the end of the polling during a general election at the party's main office in Islamabad, Pakistan, February 8, 2024. REUTERS/Charlotte Greenfield