Ayesha Jalal: “The Only Winner of Pakistan’s Elections is
the Military Establishment”
Zafar Musyani 20 February 2024

After months of delay, Pakistan held its 12th general elections on February 8. However, the entire electoral process, from the lead-up to the polling and the announcement of the results, was marred by several controversies, further exacerbating the country’s political crisis. Amidst allegations of pre-poll political engineering and repression specifically targeting Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), whose senior leadership, including former Prime Minister Imran Khan, is currently in prison, the party’s ability to participate in the elections was hampered after it was stripped of its election symbol by a court order.

Ayesha Jalal (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

The shutdown of mobile phone services on election day, and later the unusual delay and alleged alteration of the election results, further undermined the legitimacy of the polls.

Political parties across the spectrum, from mainstream to fringe, have rejected the results, leading to widespread protests and blockades of the country’s major highways. International observers, including the United Nations, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, have expressed concern about the elections and called for an investigation into reported irregularities.

Despite bringing any semblance of normalcy to a country grappling with dire economic and political instability and a rise in militancy, the recent elections have pushed Pakistan further into uncertain political chaos, even though the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) have announced to form a coalition. In this context, Reset DOC interviewed political scientist and historian Ayesha Jalal to get her views on the recent elections, democracy, and political stability in Pakistan.


What were your initial feelings on the evening of February 8, when the election results began to appear on television screens, showing independent candidates backed by the PTI in the lead? PTI claims that the election results were deliberately stopped and delayed to steal its mandate. What are your thoughts on this claim?

If you have less than 10 percent returns, and you are a mature viewer with some experience of elections in Pakistan, you don’t jump to conclusions; just because you are leading with 10 percent of the vote doesn’t mean that you have won the elections. My reaction was that it was because of the Internet suspension. And while it was frustrating, I didn’t jump to the conclusion that anyone had won. I knew that we would have to wait until the next morning.

Also, I don’t know what this fluster is about delayed election results. India has elections and the results are not announced until three weeks or four weeks later. Indonesia held elections a few days ago, and the results won’t be announced until March. To say that in a country with the population of Pakistan and 128 million people registered to vote and about half or less than half of those who voted should all be counted in no time is a bit absurd. I blame the Election Commission. They should have a firm date when the election results will be out and avoid speculation.

The gap between the perception of victory based on 10 percent returns and the final result has been the root of the problem. This is not to deny that electoral malpractices occurred, but they did not occur specifically in one party’s losses. It was across the board. Many smaller parties are also complaining about electoral discrepancies. So, the view that there were malpractices only in the constituencies lost by the PTI is a biased interpretation by the party’s supporters. And that’s not new in Pakistan.


Do you think that such manipulations and discrepancies during the election process and results were not primarily aimed at targeting the PTI?

There are PML-N stalwarts who lost. Several PML-N senior leaders lost. If, as the PTI claims, about 70 seats were stolen, there are procedures they have to go through to prove that. And until that happens, we can’t conclude, whether they actually won 180 seats as they claim. 180 out of 265 doesn’t leave much for the other parties. But that’s basically what the claim has been.


Many argue that the conduct of the elections, characterized by political engineering and repression, along with the alleged “manipulation” of the election results, is unprecedented in Pakistan’s history. Is this true?

I don’t think it has been unprecedented at all. I think the 2018 elections, which Imran Khan won, were also hugely manipulated in his favor. But to say that this is the first time in Pakistan’s history, I think that’s just a lack of historical understanding and historical knowledge. This has been happening all along. The only election that is acknowledged as somewhat free and fair is the 1970 election. And that was also because the expectations of the all-powerful establishment were belied by the results. They expected to win, and they didn’t.

In this case, I expected a hung parliament. I predicted that the battleground state would be Punjab, and that’s exactly what has happened. It’s a very divided group there, even though the PML-N is the largest single party. To say that these elections are completely lacking in credibility is belied by the success of the PTI independents in parliament though. I mean, if the elections were rigged against the PTI, how did it emerge as the largest single group of independents in parliament, in addition to sweeping the polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) as well?


Were Nawaz Sharif and his party the favorites of the security establishment for this election?

I don’t think so. It was a PTI narrative that the PML-N was the favorite. The actual results have shown that it was not. The establishment certainly wanted Nawaz Sharif back to lend legitimacy to the exercise, but he was not the favorite of the establishment. If he had been, he would have won a simple majority, which is what he wanted. He didn’t get it.


How can one make sense of the PTI’s significant success? Should it be seen as a “referendum” against the military, against dynastic politics in Pakistan, or as an expression of the people’s love and/or sympathy for Imran Khan?

Not all of these numbers are expected to stick with the PTI in the long run. They ran as independents, and if you understand Pakistani politics or even Indian politics, you know that independents are not bound by any party discipline and can switch. Some have already done so, and more are expected to do so. But yes, the PTI did exceptionally well and the credit goes to its social media brigade, which did their homework and of course to the PTI supporters who came out to vote. In the perception of PTI supporters who voted, it was an anti-establishment, anti-PML-N, anti-PPP vote. This is not to deny that there was a pro-Imran sentiment, but the negative factors were as strong, if not stronger. But the real irony is that the only real winners of this election are the establishment, because a divided mandate gives them a strong hand. That is why I predicted this sort of result.

There are also questions about the credibility of the election. But if the elections had no credibility, how do we explain 92 seats won by the PTI candidates as independents? You can’t just have rigging in some constituencies and not others. It’s a process. And if a decision was made to give parties a certain number of seats, the PTI did quite well, given that the establishment was ostensibly against it.


It is not only the PTI, but also other parties, including nationalists from the periphery who are crying foul, alluding to the fact that not everyone is happy with the elections. Is this not a big mark on the credibility of the elections?

Smaller parties such as the nationalists from Balochistan and other provinces as well as the religious political parties including the Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) and the Jamaat-i Islami (JI) are all protesting that they have been deprived of their victories. They have to prove it and for that they have to go through a process to validate their claim. There was undoubtedly an element of manipulation in the pre-electoral period. I do not believe that rigging took place during the polling on election day. The delay in the voting has led to suspicions, but this can also be attributed to the gap, as I explained, between the perception created by the media that the PTI was in the lead and the final results.

They may be able to provide the evidence in some constituencies, but I don’t know whether they can prove that the elections were “stolen” across the board.


Given the social fragmentation and deep polarization that Pakistan is going through, will the new coalition government, with a highly controversial mandate, be able to bring economic and political stability to the country?

That will depend on whether the political parties can accept the outcome of the elections, however flawed. Otherwise, political stability will elude Pakistan. There’s going to be a minority government backed by the PPP from outside or inside, whichever way you want to look at it. And that does not augur well for “stability”. Stability has been sacrificed at the cost of giving the establishment a strong hand. The last thing the establishment wants is a party, especially the PML-N, with a strong mandate. Because they are and they were always wary of Mian Nawaz Sharif, which is why they prefer his brother, who is more compliant and is deemed to be much more of a player than Nawaz Sharif. So, they wanted to cut him [Nawaz] down to size. It is something that has to be recognized that the PML-N also has been kept down just as the PTI has been kept down.

What Pakistan needs most now is economic reform, and that can be difficult. For healing, the PTI should focus on forming a government in KP, where it has won handsomely. The PPP should focus on the government in Sindh. Punjab belongs to the PML-N. Balochistan is likely to be a coalition government. The problem is at the federal level. Nobody is interested in dumping the whole electoral exercise because that means going for new elections. And very few political parties would want to do that because it’s expensive and time-consuming. Besides, there’s no guarantee that the results would be more conclusive if there were new elections.


Is Pakistan entering another ‘hybrid regime’? 

Yes, if you want to call it that. It is a military-controlled state, you can’t measure Pakistan’s political situation by taking the normative ideas of democracy from this or that country. You have to measure Pakistan for what it is. The problem is that the international community, which knows nothing about Pakistan and is even less interested in it, keeps looking at superficial results without understanding what has really happened. There is a lack of interest.


Many analysts believe that the election result show that the Pakistani military has lost control over the management of the political process, especially elections in the country. What do you think about that?

I don’t agree with that. The military is very much in control.


How do you see the democratic progress in Pakistan?

There’s always hope for democracy in a country where there is a democratic temperament. But that requires an uninterrupted political process, not one in which there is meddling. And the only way you can stop interference is to have no stop-and-start political process. In 2013, for the first time since independence, Pakistan had a transition from one elected government to another elected government. But in 2017, Nawaz Sharif, who had a majority in parliament, was thrown out on very flimsy grounds. That was a setback and Imran Khan was weaponized and brought in. Imran Khan was very far from being a symbol of civilian supremacy. He was brought in by the military establishment to play their cards. Both were on the same page. But it still didn’t work. They fell out. You know what happened afterwards. What Pakistan needs is an uninterrupted process. Constant interference in the political process makes it very hard for the country to establish basic democratic norms.


In the context of a weak coalition government that is currently expected how vulnerable is it to the intervention by undemocratic forces, and what measures can be taken to resist such influence?

It is not just intervention, but outright manipulation. When it comes to foreign policy and defense, for example, it’s very difficult for any ruling combination to go against what the Army High Command wants. The Army High Command has been calling the shots on defense and foreign affairs for several decades. They’re now beginning to expand into the economy, including involvement in the agricultural sector. This is unlikely to change any time soon because the military is embedded. It can only change if politicians put their heads together and decide to work with each other. Unfortunately, politicians are more interested in making deals with the umpire rather than playing the game according to the rules. The PTI is not against the army, it’s against the army supporting any other political party or combination. That doesn’t help the cause of democracy. Imran Khan believes that his political opponents are corrupt, which is why he doesn’t want to do deals with them, but that only plays into the hands of the military establishment.


Dr Ayesha Jalal is the Mary Richardson Professor of History and also a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. She is the author of several books including “The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and Demand for Pakistan,” The State of Martial Rule: The Origin of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence,” and “Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective.”


Cover photo: People watch latest election results live on a television at a shop, a day after Pakistan’s national elections in Lahore on February 9, 2024. Photo by Arif ALI / AFP.

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn to see and interact with our latest contents.

If you like our stories, events, publications and dossiers, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month).  



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)