No party won a majority in Pakistan’s contentious election. What happens now?

Pakistan’s recent general election has intensified the country’s tumultuous politics. The hotly contested election period left 24 people dead following attacks on political offices and the suspension of cellular and internet services nationwide.

With 98 of 264 seats, independents in Pakistan — who are backed by the imprisoned former prime minister Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party — won the most seats.

The Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN), with 76 seats, trailed behind PTI while the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won 54 seats. But with no clear majority and amid widespread concerns about vote tampering and election engineering, there is further uncertainty about Pakistan’s political future.

Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif addresses supporters following initial results of the country’s general election, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Feb. 9, 2024.
(AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Both PTI and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN have declared victory. But it’s not clear who will become Pakistan’s next prime minister as none of the three major parties will be able to secure the 169 seats required to establish a majority in parliament and form a government on their own.

Coalition speculation

Other smaller parties also won representation, including a surprise comeback by the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) with 17 seats, while multiple other parties secured a total of 20 seats among them, including the Pakistan Muslim League — an offshoot of PMLN — the Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party and the Jamiat-e-Ulema Party.

There is speculation about a coalition between PMLN and the PPP, with PTI-backed independents joining either party or a smaller party to gain a share of the parliament’s remaining 70 seats.

Out of the National Assembly’s 336 total seats, there are 264 seats that each party hoping to form a majority government are likely vying for. There are also 70 reserved seats, 60 for women and 10 for non-Muslim candidates.

Khan’s PTI leadership is reportedly convening to discuss the results, though it’s signalling it has no intention of forming a coalition government with the PPP and PMLN. It claims to have won 150 seats, not 98, and can form a centrist government. However, these claims are unsubstantiated by official results.

The PPP and PMLN, meanwhile, have reportedly agreed to form a coalition government in Punjab.

A dark-haired woman in a pale pink sari and head scarf smiles as she listens to someone speak.
Maryam Nawaz, daughter of Nawaz Sharif, attends an election campaign rally in Hafizabad, Pakistan, in January 2024.
(AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

This will result in a cautious power-sharing exercise between two longtime fixtures of Pakistani politics.

On the one hand, there’s the PLMN’s Sharif — a three-time former prime minister — his brother Shabaz Sharif (also a former prime minister), Nawaz’s daughter Maryam Nawaz and Shabaz Sharif’s son Hamza (former chief minister of Punjab).

On the other hand, there’s the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (husband and son of the late Benazir Bhutto, respectively).

Each of them could possibly become the prime minister of a coalition government if an agreement is reached.

Some newly elected PTI-backed candidates have reportedly already joined PMLN, with more independent candidates expected to swing in the coming days.

Crackdowns cause outrage

Pakistan’s crackdown on PTI, including the loss of its election symbol and the imprisonment of its chairman, angered party workers and supporters on the eve of the election.

The unrest continues as citizens hold widespread protests across the country over allegations of vote rigging and vote counts that took as long as three days.

PTI’s interim leadership has also called for peaceful nationwide protests, alleging stolen votes. With a hung parliament, intensifying political instability and a scramble to attain power are in full force in Pakistan.

A man with a long grey beard shouts a slogan with his arm raised.
Supporters of Imran Khan chant slogans during a protest against the delayed election results in Karachi, Pakistan, on Feb. 10, 2024.
(AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

Military as the puppet-master

The role of the military in Pakistan’s politics was widely criticized in the months leading up to the 2024 elections.

Dubbed the “mother of all selections,” the election results are widely believed to have been engineered by the most powerful political entity in the country — its military.

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Using political repression, military generals have controlled the democratic process and electoral outcomes since Pakistan’s foundation in 1947. Khan blamed the military for the overthrow of his democratically elected government in 2022 through a no-confidence vote.

Sharif — who has reconciled with the military since being ousted three times as prime minister, most recently in 2017 — was heavily favoured by the generals to win the 2024 election. His potential return to power for a fourth time following a self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom was based on a backroom deal with the military that sidelined Khan and the PTI.

A thin balding man in a military uniform wearing glasses looks solemn at an event.
Lt. Gen. Syed Asim Munir, head of the Pakistan military, attends a ceremony in Islamabad in November 2022.
(AP Photo/W.K. Yousufzai)

Despite the military’s intervention, PTI-backed independents have gained significant ground. In a country where the military reigns supreme, PTI’s performance upended most political predictions that anyone who crosses the military cannot win.

Nonetheless, despite its strong showing, PTI is not likely to form a government.

As such, PTI-backed independents must join a smaller party and form a coalition government, or be wooed by PMLN, a strategy that is already underway. Sharif is reportedly partaking in horse-trading to court enough PTI-backed independents to form a government without the PPP or MQM.

Will the military stand down?

Experts believe the military must now seek reconciliation with Khan rather than support an unsustainable coalition against the PTI. Given the growing wave of discontent against the Pakistan army, it would be wise to protect itself against further accusations of political meddling.

Pakistan’s political uncertainty comes at a time when the country is dealing with several pressing issues, including negotiating a new International Monetary Fund program to support a faltering economy, a sharp increase in government corruption and mismanagement, soaring inflation, economic challenges arising from the IMF bailout and subsequent debt restructuring, external debt of more than US$120 billion and rampant youth unemployment.

The PTI and PPP have already ruled out post-election alliances with each other, while Nawaz has a reputation for being unsuitable to lead coalitions because of his temperment. Some observers are even suggesting an outside candidate serve as prime minister to maintain peace.

Read more:
Pakistan’s post-election crisis – how anti-army vote may deliver an unstable government that falls into the military’s hands

Three weeks after a national election, the president is required by law to convene the national assembly. This means the parties have until Feb. 29 to unite into a coalition.

During that session, new legislators are sworn in. They file nomination papers for several important positions, such as leader of the house and speaker of the house. A simple majority of 134 members is needed to elect a new prime minister in a parliamentary vote held once these slots are filled.

It’s now up to Pakistan’s major political players to figure out who’s going to lead the country.

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