Pakistan: Will it remain a democracy in uniform?

The Pakistani military went all out to deliver this vote. Its idea to have direct control of the political situation to what it comprehends will bring stability to Pakistan’s crisis may be a pipe dream with a fractured verdict leaving Pakistan open to elements that will only compound its instability.

Aparna Rawal Feb 12, 2024
Imran Khan, Army chief Asim Munir and Nawaz Sharif

After three military-backed regimes in Pakistan, the Pakistani military establishment continues to maintain that it is not involved in politics. Before the elections held on February 8, 2024, a complaint written by a local election officer was circulated. It was addressed to Pakistan's election commission. According to the election officer, the software that was used for the elections - Election Management System (EMS) - was exhibiting several anomalies. Perhaps the most surprising anomaly was about data storage - it seemed new uploads of batches of election data went missing after a short while, raising questions about whether it was the result of an IT glitch or human interference. Upon witnessing the malfunction in the software, the elections officer took the aid of IT support. The IT support team confirmed a software glitch. But the election officer was told to conduct the election process regardless of the faulty system while using the same software.

Receiving no solution, the officer wrote a complaint letter to the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). In it, the officer described “the weakness of the system” and the question of the “reliability” and “validity” of such software meant to conduct the general elections. The officer said either the EMS was an “utter failure” or there was “someone” who may have been managing or controlling the system from “behind the veil”.

A similar complaint was filed by the People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP) led by Zardari Bjhutto while addressing the concerns with the NADRA system, stating that such malfunctions could be utilized for poll manipulation. However, he received only a muted reaction from the Election Commission.

A controlled electoral system?

The mere suggestion of the system being controlled raises several doubts about NADRA, which is an autonomous and independent entity under the interior secretary of Pakistan. The NADRA is tasked with the regulation of government databases, as well as the registration database of Pakistani nationals. The agency plays an important role in monitoring the elections and also determines their results.

Since the change in Pakistan’s administration, the position of the head of the NADRA was always assigned to a civilian. This time however a serving general was appointed. Lieutenant General Muhammad Munir Afsar is the current chairman of NADRA. Why would a military general be in charge of the voter rolls, which is a natural part of the civic system for electing representatives of the population – a basic tenet of the concept of democracy - is a question yet to be answered. It can be inferred that the military took the liberty to put its own man to the task of making sure of its desired victory in the general elections.

The general elections in Pakistan, commenced days after the former PM Imran Khan was sentenced, in what many believed to be sham trials, to a total of 24 years in prison on charges, which included, among others, divulging of state secrets. With Khan arrested and his party members succumbing to a crackdown, it was certain that PTI would clear the way for a victory for current military favourite Nawaz Sharif.

Consequentially, most of the PTI candidates ran as independents as they were barred from using the symbol of a cricket bat, which would help the illiterate demographic identify PTI.  The elections were held for 265 of the 266 seats in the national assembly, meaning that for a political party to have a majority would need 133 seats.

The results of the general elections were as follows: Independents 99, PMLN 71, PPP 53 and Others 27. To form a government, the PMLN would require to form a coalition that would support the future government.

Imran Khan in his “victory speech”, posted on X on Friday talked about an “unprecedented fightback from the nation” which he claimed was a “landslide victory” for the PTI.

Based on trends, it was confirmed that Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party was in the lead. However, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) decided to declare victory before the official results, while the votes were still being counted. Sharif has been shooting for a fourth term as prime minister.

Despite the PTI being in the forefront, the baffling victory of PMLN has received many reactions in regards to the Pakistani democracy being compromised at the hand of a totalitarian military regime. A multitude of reports on the discrepancies with the election results have been surfacing.

Maleeha Hashmey, a Pakistani journalist also shared a document signed by the returning officer. The document showed that “many candidates, other than Nawaz Sharif, in NA130-Lahore constituency, had got no votes at all.”

Additionally, PTI shared a document on X (formerly known as Twitter) claiming that “the number of total valid votes (in NA 130 Lahore constituency where Nawaz Sharif contested) was outnumbering the total number of casted votes.

Jousting over government formation

Sharif is trying his best to form a coalition government but PTI has turned down the coalition idea with PML-N. It seems Sharif’s PML-N and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s PPP have settled on forming a coalition government in Islamabad and Lahore, Punjab. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P) has also decided to join this government. According to Dawn, both PML-N and MQM-P have agreed to “work together in the interest of the country and public” to form a coalition government.

While Sharif has been consolidating parties to form his government, the PTI has been calling for a coalition with other parties.  PTI chairman Gohar Ali Khan announced that Pakistani President Arif Alvi would be expected to invite PTI to form the government as the party had a majority in the National Assembly. Generally, post the parliamentary polls, the newly elected parliament appoints the prime minister. In circumstances when a single party fails to secure a majority, the political party with the highest number of assembly seats would be expected to form a coalition government. 

Independent members, who are in the largest number, however, cannot form a government on their own and are expected to join a party within a week and make their loyalties known. 

Several candidates have also moved the courts against the alleged election rigging. PTI-backed Independent candidates filed a complaint at the Lahore High Court (LHC), challenging the results of two constituencies that were won by the father-son duo of Shehbaz Sharif, former PM and brother of Nawaz Sharif, and Hamza Shehbaz. The majority of the petitions were filed at the Lahore High Court, Islamabad High Court and a few at Sindh High Court.

PTI leader Barrister Gohar Ali Khan has called upon party workers and supporters to hold protests in front of the offices of returning officers in constituencies where the poll results were “withheld and delayed”.

Contradictions in the election process

With allegations flying thick and fast against the Pakistani military's unconstitutional ploy to rig and appoint its puppet PM, it is logical for the parties opposing the election results to seek international interference. 

Democratic Representatives in the US, Ro Khanna and Ilhan Omar have voiced their concern over the Pakistan poll process stating that “the military is interfering and rigging the result.” The U.N. human rights office also condemned the violence against political parties and candidates regarding Pakistan’s “pattern of harassment, arrests and prolonged detentions of leaders and supporters” of PTI.  A statement released from the British foreign minister David Cameron’s office stated “Serious concerns raised about the fairness and lack of inclusivity of the elections.”

There are several contradictory elements regarding the entire election process. Firstly, Pakistan which claims to be advocating democracy, is seen conducting elections at the gunpoint of the military. Secondly, the country suspended its communication services. Thirdly, amidst the crackdown on PTI, some of the PTI candidates were found assassinated or mysteriously dead in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Additionally, the attacks on some candidates were claimed by Isis Khorasan (ISK). The reports of the Pakistani spy agency ISI colluding with ISK have been surfacing for a while. This was also confirmed by former Tehreek-e-Taliban commander Ehsanullah Ehsan.

Lastly, the firm resolve of the caretaker PM to conduct the elections on the designated date, especially close to the date of Imran Khan’s court verdict, also raised questions.

Interestingly, the Pakistani caretaker government suspended mobile cellular services for what it claims were security measures. This is also ascribed as a reason by the government for the delayed results.
Unfortunately, the delay in the election results has increased the political uncertainty in Pakistan. The negative effect was felt on the markets too, where the Karachi stock index dived off a cliff to normalize at 2 per cent below the previous day’s levels; Pakistan’s sovereign bonds prices shot up, which put additional pressure on the already high cost for government borrowing, further limiting any future state expenditures.

The PTI official handle on platform X too has lambasted the government for blocking X as they were "exposing" the rigging of the elections by the military. Imran Khan has been using X extensively to reach out to his supporters and empathisers from prison. It is being inferred that to immobilize Khan’s reach online, the military had taken necessary measures to secure Sharif’s victory in the election.

Tough challenges ahead

In the coming days, the current terms between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Pakistan are set to expire. Analysts believe the new coalition government will be faced with a tough challenge to renew its new bailout and if that is achieved, it will be at a higher cost considering the adverse effect on government bonds.

The Pakistani military went all out to deliver this vote. Its idea to have direct control of the political situation to what it comprehends will bring stability to Pakistan’s crisis may be a pipe dream with a fractured verdict leaving Pakistan open to elements that will only compound its instability.

It can be assumed that Pakistan’s democracy comes manufactured in a military uniform under a totalitarian hand.

(The writer is an Indian research analyst specializing in AF/Pak region and counter-terrorism. Views are personal. She can be contacted at

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