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Rollercoaster to the polls

As country gears for challenging elections, will the process alleviate or exacerbate the controversies triggered?

By Zahid Gishkori |
Design by: Ibrahim Yahya
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PUBLISHED February 04, 2024

Pakistan is gearing up for its most challenging elections in recent history. The country’s political landscape is fragmented and polarised, as it undergoes a seismic shift. The clash between the top 50 political giants is evident, especially with one major party facing the state's ire. Leading political parties have initiated their re-election campaigns, with 42 per cent of lawmakers switching allegiances for this year's elections. Over 5,100 candidates are vying for the 266 general seats in the lower house of Parliament, contributing to a total of over 17,000 candidates contesting the 859 general seats in the 2024 elections.

Absent faces

Amidst this fervour, several former prime ministers of Pakistan are notably absent from the upcoming elections race. Their numbers include the founder of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Imran Khan, who has been convicted in three cases over the past three months. His party, having lost its iconic election symbol, the bat, has more than 1,600 candidates in the election race, with 846 candidates enjoying official PTI backing.

Other former premiers such as Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and former deputy prime minister Chaudhry Pervez Ilahi are also not contesting, along with 56 former members of Parliament. Meanwhile, despite facing serious court cases, leaders of other political parties like former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, and former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari are actively mobilising voters with full zeal and zest. Against this political backdrop, it appears that the role of Pakistan's powerful establishment would be dominant in shaping the new political landscape.

While Nawaz Sharif's return was seen as a potential remedy for the country's economic and diplomatic challenges, it remains uncertain if his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, will secure over 100 National Assembly seats. The current political landscape suggests that independents may emerge as the second most influential parliamentary force in the upcoming elections, amidst various factors that make the stage for the 2024 elections more complex and contentious than ever in the country's electoral history.

Political deck

There is a looming scenario where no single party may have enough strength to independently form a government, potentially requiring reliance on military support for political survival — a challenge Imran Khan faced during his tenure as prime minister. With nearly 65 per cent of former PTI lawmakers parting ways with the party, the turncoats continue to influence the political landscape, particularly in South Punjab and the country’s tribal belts. This longstanding trend of loyalty shifts ahead of elections has taken a new twist this time, with many heavyweights from South Punjab – a region encompassing constituencies known for changes in political allegiances – refraining from joining up with any political party this time. Pakistan Peoples Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari seems to be the only leader conducting a nationwide campaign by holding public rallies and urging voters to rally behind his party. Nawaz and his daughter Maryam are also drawing crowds, but their outreach has been limited to select cities thus far.

Ongoing speculation revolves around the potential advantages that various political factions might wield in different regions: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Parliamentarians (PTI-P) in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) in Balochistan, Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) in Sindh, and Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) in Punjab. The significant role of religious parties is another crucial aspect, with attention on Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) with over 750 candidates, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) with over 607 candidates, and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) with over 350 candidates across the country. MQM's position appears promising in Karachi and Hyderabad, while PPP, with over 200 candidates in Sindh, seems poised to secure a significant presence in the province in the upcoming general elections. IPP and PML-Q are vying for traction in Punjab, where the influence of IPP could play a crucial role in shaping the political landscape. The influence of JUI-F, PML-N, and PPP, along with BAP's significance, could be decisive factors in Balochistan, while MQM-P is active in Sindh. Pervez Khattak may hold favourable prospects for his new party in the upcoming elections as well and TLP could also emerge as a strong contender in some constituencies in these elections.

Historic headcount

The 2024 Elections marked a historic moment with 28,626 candidates filing their nomination papers, a 25 per cent increase compared to the previous elections which saw around 21,000 candidates in the race. Among the current candidates competing for 859 general seats, 16,930 are male and 882 are female. Notably, four transgender candidates are also contesting in the 2024 elections.

Interestingly, approximately 33 per cent (89 candidates) had contested in the 1990 general elections. Of the total candidates, 1,873 (1,780 males and 93 females) have party affiliations, while 3,248 (3,027 males, 219 females, and two transgender) are independents vying for the 266 general National Assembly seats. Additionally, 4,158 candidates (3,976 males and 182 females) with party affiliations and 8,537 (8,147 males, 388 females, and 2 transgender) independent candidates are contesting for 593 provincial assembly seats in the 2024 elections.

Courts, tribunals, and returning officers have taken a stringent stance on contesting candidates compared to previous elections. Around 3,240 candidates' nominations were rejected for the 2024 elections, contrasting sharply with the 2018 general elections where only nine per cent (1,893 candidates) faced rejection out of a total of 20,099 nomination papers submitted. In the 2024 elections, 68 per cent of the total candidates, comprising 2,235 out of 3,240, have filed appeals. Official statistics reveal that in the 2018 elections, only 66 per cent, or 1,227 out of 1,893 rejected candidates, pursued appeals. In contrast, in the 2013 elections, merely 41 per cent, or 1,618 out of 3,916 rejected candidates, chose to file appeals.

Controversial playing field

Three leading parties – PML-N, PPP, and PTI – have collectively fielded over 800 candidates for the 266 general seats of the National Assembly, aiming to secure maximum votes this time. PTI faces a dilemma as the party has been dissolved, and its candidates are contesting as independents, with around 51 per cent (approximately 139) being relatively young and lacking parliamentary election experience. Overall, PTI has introduced 75 per cent new candidates for all general seats in these elections. Due to losing the party's iconic ‘bat’ symbol, PTI faces a significant challenge in securing sizable seats in the Centre. However, the party boasts a large-scale popular vote bank in the country, which could translate into substantial gains in some constituencies, pundits suggest. PTI candidates have also had to fight for their presence and candidacy legitimacy, with nomination papers of 95 per cent of PTI candidates eventually being approved. Official data reveals that nomination papers of 1,996 out of 2,620 candidates endorsed by PTI were approved for the 859 general seats in the 2024 general elections.

On the other hand, PML-N and PPP have had the freedom to mobilise their voters across different regions of Pakistan. PML-N appears as a strong contender in Punjab, while PPP dominates in Sindh. Despite PTI maintaining a strong presence in K-P, there is a possibility of a new party emerging in the province, similar to BAP in Balochistan or IPP in Punjab. Many speculate that Pervez Khattak could lead this party, potentially playing a pivotal role in forming the government with JUI-F and ANP in K-P. Numerous political analysts suggest that the influential circles in the country are still keen on undermining political leaders and parties, a trend evident in 2018 with PML-N and now in 2024 with PTI, similar to what happened with PPP in 2013. Karachi, like the recent local elections, is anticipated to turn into a four-way contest involving PPP, JI, PTI, and MQM-P, with the latter considered the weakest due to organisational and party weaknesses.

Many political observers consider the current political turmoil even more severe than previous elections. They recall that before the 2018 elections, 61 former MNAs of PML-N were coerced into joining PTI, and now approximately 89 former MNAs of PTI have been compelled to leave the party. In 2018, a total of 143 individuals either entirely shifted their political allegiance or opted to run as independent candidates. Party-wise distribution indicates a significant departure from PTI, with 107 former MNAs leaving the party. Of these, 18 have joined PML-N, 13 have aligned with IPP, and 11 have joined PPP. PTI strategically opted to introduce fresh candidates, with 75 per cent of its line-up being newcomers to the electoral arena. Out of the party’s 859 general candidates, 441 candidates are contesting at the national level for the first time.

These political manoeuvres have consistently tainted the transparency of elections, and the 2024 elections are no exception. The top leadership of the PTI has been convicted, and the second and third-tier leadership either find themselves in jail or in hiding due to various issues stemming from recent events. Critics also question the authority and effectiveness of the Election Commission of Pakistan, which seemingly failed to ensure a level playing field for political parties in the upcoming elections. The consensus on establishing an interim, non-controversial setup leaves numerous unresolved questions. In Balochistan, the political landscape appears to follow the traditional pattern, where the party in the centre typically forms the government with its allies. The JI’s candidates are facing challenges in mobilising voters effectively for victory in these elections. Despite fielding a significant number of candidates, the party seems to lack the winning momentum, particularly in Punjab.

Possible outcomes

As the elections draw near, PTI’s leadership faces the prospect of further punishment, and the momentum appears to be shifting towards PML-N, which is expected to secure a significant share of seats at the centre, but not a majority. This trend is unfolding at a time when many electables in Punjab seem inclined to support PML-N nationally and potentially back IPP at the provincial level, particularly in Punjab. IPP and PML-Q in Punjab, MQM in Sindh, BAP in Balochistan, and JUI-F in K-P appear willing to joining forces with PML-N. PPP leadership is also eyeing the electables and independents who are likely to win their constituencies. However, much hinges on the influence of the establishment and its inclination to keep PTI out, especially given the rift over the past year and after the events of May 9th. It appears that there are many uncertainties that will take centre stage in the 2024 elections, but one thing is clear: perhaps no political party will be able to form the government at the centre alone, potentially leading political parties to form a national government.

Many political pundits, while assessing the current scenario, suggest that Nawaz Sharif seems well-positioned to form the federal and Punjab governments, but the projection remains somewhat uncertain. They believe that PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto could establish a strong government in Sindh and secure over 40 seats in the National Assembly from the province. Political analysts further note that PTI still maintains significant support in K-P, with hopes that the party could potentially regain its registration and symbol through intra-party elections. Although PTI's winning candidates could face legal challenges regarding their representation in Parliament, the party's leadership remains optimistic that they could collaborate with like-minded parties in the province to secure seats and form the government in K-P if they secure a majority. Many pundits speculate that the K-P government may take shape as a coalition involving JUI-F, PML-N, PTI-P, and possibly ANP and PPP, depending on each party's electoral performance if PTI falls short of expectations. Researchers suggest that PTI’s 29 former MNAs and 56 former MPAs could emerge as strong contenders in the province. The current elections may lead to a polarised landscape in Balochistan, a province with a history of chief ministership shifting between PML-N, PPP, BAP, or JUI-F.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the 2024 elections, the country will finally hold the much-awaited polls next week. Amidst this uncertainty and deeper chaos, predicting the outcome is challenging. However, it is evident that the elections will be closely monitored and could spark another debate, with all political parties likely to deem it controversial, both before and after the balloting. The post-election scenario is expected to be equally intriguing, with independents emerging as kingmakers and an interesting political dance anticipated between the two leading parties in Parliament.


Zahid Gishkori currently works with the Hum Television Network as Editor Investigation. He can be reached on the social media platform X @ZahidGishkori

All facts and information are the sole responsibility of the writer