After a period of military interventions in Pakistan, which has a history of military rule and military-backed governments, political stability has always been a distant dream. Thus the July 25 general election was a key opportunity for the country to make its only second democratic transition of power in history.
Before the release of the final results, however, Pakistan's major political parties alleged that the election was rigged. There are widespread rumors that the Election Commission did not allow representatives of all political parties' to be present during the vote count. Meanwhile, some journalists covering the election said that the delay in announcing the results after voting had ended was indeed alarming.
Even after the final announcement, almost all major parties questioned the results while once famous cricketer and now the country's prime minister to be, Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), declared victory.
It would be fair to note that the chief observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission to Pakistan, Michael Gahler said on July 26 that there was improvement as compared to the previous election held in 2013, when Khan accused the army of backing former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is currently in jail for corruption, in the polls and had announced countrywide protest against Sharif's government.
How Pakistanis went to the polls
Aside from the problems with counting votes, there was a gloomy atmosphere in Pakistan long before. The crackdown on media and the intimidation and arrest of some party supporters along with the rumors that the Pakistani military and intelligence were behind Imran Khan, had already cast a shadow over the upcoming elections.
Khan's main rival, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif, complained that its supporters were arrested, and the Bhutto family's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was said to have been prevented from holding rallies. There were also reports of press members being silenced or physically attacked.
Notwithstanding, the large military presence ahead of the elections, the terrorist attacks and killing sprees have started once again in the country that has not been able to recover from constant attacks. A suicide attack near Quetta in Baluchistan province on July 13 killed 153 people and injured nearly 200 others. The same province was once again targeted by the terrorists on election day when an explosion near a police station killed two police officers and 31 civilians.
The attacks also targeted politicians shortly before the nation went to the polls. They voted as tensions were running high amid the deadly attacks and accusations of interference by the military.
In addition to jailing politicians, a few names got the attention of analysts and the international media because they were seemingly attempting to normalize some of the "preferred" armed groups to get into politics and campaign freely.
The leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist organization, Hafiz Saeed, who is recognized as a terrorist globally and accused of being the mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack and Khadim Hussain Rizvi with his newly registered political party, Tahreek-I Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, ran in the elections.
Although some say that Khan is the one who benefited from Pakistan's establishment's – a word used for the military, intelligence and segments of the bureaucracy and judiciary – sidelining Nawaz Sharif just before the elections, surveys, especially from Punjab where the PML-N historically takes the majority, show that there were many people who think the corruption charges were politically motivated and did not affect their choices.
Whether or not the military had intervened in the elections, it surely benefited Khan – however, this is the problem itself and one that is waiting for him in the long term.
Khan and those who are familiar with the military's role in Pakistani politics should remember that Nawaz Sharif was the army's favorite son once, up until he came into conflict, especially over foreign policy issues like Pakistan's relationship with India, which Khan is now meddling in.
The changing economic dynamics and the demands of the country were other key issues that caused Sharif to side with civilian authority. Thus, it wouldn't be wrong to conclude Sharif was disqualified by the military as an attempt to undermine civilian authority, apart from him being charged with corruption as he is no saint in this regard.
With a powerful army that calls the final shots, it has been difficult for all political leaders in Pakistan to develop positive engagement with regional countries and global powers, it will certainly be the same for Khan, or even more, to shape the country's foreign policy or answer the country's needs of trade and economic development while not challenging the army's hegemony. Described as stubborn by many, Imran Khan will be challenged by the military's role in politics from the very beginning. The army would prefer that the government is formed as a weak and divided coalition, easier to influence rather than a strong unified administration.
The political power in Pakistan has been at the hands of prominent families in the four provinces of the country for a long time. Punjab – the largest province – was the stronghold of the Nawaz family's PML-N while Sindh was triumphed by Bhutto's PPP.
Although some analysts commented that the situation will not change much this time, preview results show that while the PML-N remains the preferred party among voters in Punjab, the PTI has narrowed the gap significantly. The PPP has also lost a significant vote from its historical voter base in Sindh. Following the race, another challenge for Khan is to form a government and implement his agenda after the failed examples of the Sharif-Bhutto governance in Pakistan's political history.
Challenges and progress
While building his political campaign on being anti-corruption and anti-poverty, Imran Khan focused on overthrowing his main rival, Nawaz Sharif's party whose candidate was the ex-prime minister's brother Shehbaz Sharif. He didn't explain a complete policy on the country's external front. Yet, after he declared victory, he changed his rhetoric a little bit, making statements for peace at home and abroad and promising that the disputed Kashmir problem would be solved. It is once again important to remember that attempts to promote a relationship with India were one of the reasons why Nawaz Sharif fell apart with the army in the first place.
Thus, the challenge Khan takes on and what he will do about it is being observed by both his supporters in the country and international actors. Khan is known to be against counterterrorism operations in the country's tribal region near the Afghan border, saying that they are killing their own people with American money. He has also called for the continuation of peace talks with the Taliban, once again showing his willingness to make peace with Afghanistan in his post-election speech.
While Afghanistan and Kashmir remain the most serious problems to tackle by the government, it is also hard to build mutual trust between Pakistan and global powers. This is so with namely the U.S., given the fact that the U.S.-Pakistan alliance that emerged after 9/11 has come to a breaking point. Ignoring Islamabad's interests, the relationship between the two countries was like that of a client-employer in which Washington paid Islamabad for its own war against extremism. There is a long way for the new government to build a mutually beneficial relationship as Khan declared in his victory speech.
On the other hand, Pakistan's relationship with China is getting much better when compared to other regional powers. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has evolved the relationship between Beijing and Islamabad. Khan has said that they should learn from China on fighting corruption. However, a major challenge for Khan is to negotiate better terms with the Chinese firms to get maximum benefit from the agreement between the two countries.
Imran Khan, as the potential leader of the new government, should focus more on designating a path for the country's foreign policy in an atmosphere of isolation, rather than accusing other countries of scapegoating Pakistan. Even though the polls have brought Imran Khan to power, he will most probably need a coalition partner to form the government, but whom he will talk to is yet another question.
No matter the coalition, the ongoing fight between the army and politics is likely to endure and Pakistan's international isolation and economic problems are ready to drive the new government into a corner. What the people of Pakistan voted for is a leader who can maneuver between these axes while acknowledging that Islamabad needs regional cooperation sooner or later.