2024 elections pose threat to Pakistani democracy

Voters at a PTI rally express their support for the former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is currently incarcerated. // Photo courtesy of Abdul Majeed AFP

Editor’s Note: All facts in this  article are reported as of Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024 at 6 p.m. 

The Republic of Pakistan, a sovereign nation nestled against the boundary of the Arabian Sea, has seldom seen political stability in its 76 years of independence from British imperialism. From the secession of East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) in 1971 to the military coup that gave rise to General Pervez Musharraf’s government in 1999, Pakistan’s political history is steeped in controversies surrounding the intricate dynamics between the stronghold of the country’s military establishment, corruption perpetuated through dynastic political families and the grievances of the general public. 

Currently, Pakistan is undergoing its 2024 general election. This is the country’s first national election since the nation’s former prime minister (PM), Imran Khan, lost a no-confidence vote in parliament in April of 2022. Khan’s removal came after a tumultuous few years in office; after being elected as PM in 2018, Khan soon began to lose the support of the military, a key player in the country’s internal and external affairs. The Pakistani military establishment is considered to be upheld by the collaboration between the Pakistan Armed Forces, the Pakistani intelligence community and other government officials, which a majority of Pakistani civilians regard as a threat to the country’s democratic processes.

Khan has continually cited the collusion between the Pakistani military establishment, his political opponents and the United States government as the main catalyst for the no-confidence vote. While the U.S. has continually denied allegations of orchestrating a regime change in Pakistan, a classified Pakistani government document obtained by The Intercept shows records of a March 2022 meeting in which the U.S. State Department used Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, as a proxy to express the United States’ displeasure with Khan regarding his political neutrality on the Russia-Ukraine war. 

According to the transcription of the secret document, Lu met with Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the United States, Asad Majeed Khan, and said, “I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister. Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead.” 

Just a month after the March meeting between Lu and the former ambassador, the no-confidence vote removed PM Khan from office. However, he has always been regarded as a populist leader, and since Khan’s removal, thousands of Pakistanis have taken to the streets each week to protest the no-confidence vote and a slew of corruption charges brought against him by his opponents. To date, over 180 charges have been raised against Khan relating to terrorism, blasphemy, corruption and more. Currently, Khan is in jail after being sentenced to 24 years in prison over leaking state secrets by waving a confidential document in a political rally (apparently the cipher indicating U.S. conspiracy for regime change) and selling state gifts that violate government rules. 

Khan’s supporters, along with members of his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), deny the allegations and see the charges against Khan as political conspiracies to keep Khan from participating in the country’s elections. After Khan’s removal from office, PTI party members have been arrested and interrogated, journalists advocating in favor of Khan have been silenced and constituency boundaries lines have been re-drawn as a means to curb the popularity of PTI. After months of delay and the implementation of a care-taker government in which Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar was appointed as the interim PM, Pakistanis took to the streets on Feb. 8, 2024 to engage in an essential civic liberty — voting in the long overdue general elections. 

Just days before the election, PTI was banned from utilizing its party symbol on the ballot papers. The importance of the party symbol becomes relevant in Pakistan’s geopolitical climate, where 40% of the electorate is illiterate. Through the implementation of symbols, alongside written party names, those unable to read and write have the ability to participate in the country’s democracy by identifying their party of choice with a pre-determined party symbol. By banning Khan’s party from displaying their symbol on the ballots, his opponents aimed to make voting inaccessible to a large proportion of the electorate, along with effectively removing PTI as a party and forcing members to run as independents. 

Khan’s primary political contenders consist of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). After no party emerged as victor in the elections, leaders of PML-N and PPP have begun agreements to form a coalition government, a move permitted by the country’s employment of a model revolving around the principles of a federal parliamentary republic. Khan’s party won 102 seats after being forced to run as independents, with PML-N coming in second place with 73 seats and PPP falling in third place with 54 seats. However, because neither of the three parties won enough seats to constitute a majority in parliament, PML-N and PPP’s negotiations to form a coalition government have      projected them to emerge victorious in the 2024 elections.

Khan’s party challenged the election results and claimed that the actual number of seats the party won was more than 150, which would be enough for PTI to claim a majority in parliament. The Election Commission has denied allegations of election rigging, despite mobile phone services being suspended on election day, the unprecedented delay of official results and thousands of voters expressing concerns about the fairness of the election processes. The United States, United Kingdom and European Union have all expressed concerns surrounding election irregularities and fraud in Pakistan, along with calling for a complete investigation to ensure the credibility of the results. 

In the U.S., Representative Ilhan Omar wrote on X (formerly Twitter), “I am deeply troubled by reports of interference in this week’s election in Pakistan. The legitimacy of any incoming government rests on fair elections, free of manipulation, intimidation, or fraud. The Pakistani people deserve nothing less than a transparent democratic process and true representative government.” 

Civilian distrust in the election results has risen not just because of the country-wide crackdowns on civil liberties, but also due to the propensity for corruption highlighted by the leaders of PML-N and PPP. In 2016, former PML-N party leader and PM Nawaz Sharif was found guilty after the Panama Papers leak, linking Sharif’s family to offshore companies in London and implicating both his daughter and son-in-law as guilty. Not only was Sharif sentenced to 10 years in prison, but he was also fined $10.6 million in corruption charges. Asif Ali Zardari, who is PPP’s leader, former president of Pakistan and husband of the late Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto, is a leader whose political past is scattered with charges of corruption and money laundering. 

Where Khan’s supporters cite instances of hypocrisy and double standards about due process in the country is in instances of political pardons that seemingly benefit the parties upholding and supporting the establishment. One such example is the Pakistan Supreme Court’s January decision to undo its lifetime ban on contesting elections for politicians with criminal convictions, which would allow Sharif to run for his fourth bid to become the country’s PM. Khan’s supporters widely believe that not only are the charges against Khan frivolous, but also that the severity of alleged Khan’s wrongdoings are lesser in magnitude to his opponents, who were allowed to run in the 2024 elections. 

With an external debt of $140 million and food inflation rising to 38.5%, the 2024 general elections in Pakistan are critical for the economic and political stability of the country. The distrust in the electoral system has caused the public to take to the streets in protest, with the country’s growing income inequality becoming more apparent for the population of more than 231.4 million people. 

While Pakistan is a few thousand miles removed from Tech’s campus, the Institute is home to a growing Pakistani-American community that feels the impact of the political tensions overseas.  Dialogue surrounding election integrity is not new to the community, and the President of the Pakistani Students Association at Tech, Rameez Raoof, second-year BME, reflected on the effects of the 2024 Pakistani election.

“​​The 2024 elections in Pakistan have spotlighted the nation’s pressing issues and the electorate’s demand for accountable governance. With a substantial youth demographic participating, the outcome and the surrounding controversies shows the pressing need for reforms in electoral transparency and the safeguarding of democratic principles in Pakistan The integrity of a nation’s laws should stand above political maneuvering, ensuring they are neither bent nor broken to favor specific parties or individuals, thus preserving the essence of a democratic nation,” Raoof said.