The general election in Pakistan saw a surge in support for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, despite it not officially being on the ballot paper. The surge was so strong that the military was compelled, despite ballot rigging, and delays in announcing the results, to accept that “independent” candidates aligned to the PTI emerged as the largest block in parliament. The PTI has 90 seats. This result, which under-plays the backing won by the PTI supported candidates, represents a significant blow to the military.
Once again it is the Pakistani military wielding power through the fig leaf of a parliamentary “democracy.” The military was and remains totally opposed to Khan’s PTI returning to power.
On this occasion the military backed Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party, which won 66 seats, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) 52 seats. Election fraud denied the PTI even more seats in the parliament. The results of the election are blow to the military which has struggled to prevent the PTI returning to power. In the run up to the election, the PTI was banned from participating. Imran Khan was imprisoned for 10 years. Internet and mobile phone connections were cut on election day.
The farce of democracy in Pakistan was illustrated by the change in the law. Nawaz Sharif had been imprisoned with a 14-year prison sentence and lifetime ban from contesting elections. Hypocritically the ban on him standing in elections was lifted to allow him to stand in this election while Khan was prohibited from standing.
Since the election, the PTI says it will form a government and, at the same time, the PML-N and the PPP are attempting to form a coalition. It means an unstable situation has begun. Social and national struggles by the peoples of the Sind, Baluchistan and elsewhere are certain to erupt. Anger at the vote rigging, corruption and the dire economic situation will fuel social upheavals following these elections. This is likely to have major repercussions in the entire region including Afghanistan and India. Protests throughout the country have taken place protesting the voting rigging which people think took place.
Pakistan has been ruled by the family dynasties of the Sharifs and Bhutto, sanctioned at various times by the military. Sharif, should he become Prime Minister, will be returning to office for the fourth time. He was replaced by his brother as Prime Minister, Shehbaz, in 2022. Each time Sharif came into collision with the military at the end of his terms, which then opposed him. Until 2023 he had not set foot in Pakistan having gone into self-imposed exile following a 14-year prison sentence for corruption.
Having clashed with the military, the Generals then switched horses and back Imran Khan in the 2018 election which he won. He was toppled with the support of the military in what amounted to a parliamentary coup in 2022. Khan is popular in Pakistan, as he is and perceived as being opposed to the “establishment” and corruption which riddles the political elite. The lack of an alternative has allowed him to win massive support. However, he is wedded to the rule of capitalism of which he is a part.
Sharif and Khan are amongst the richest politicians in the country. Sharif has an estimated wealth of US$US31 million to Khan’s US$50m million.
Khan – a bourgeois nationalist populist when in office – clashed with the IMF and western imperialism over the war in Ukraine which increased his popularity. Refusing to condemn Russia he slammed the west “Are we slaves that just do what you say.” This and other issues brought him into collision with his former backers in the military. The clash with the IMF was over the crippling debt and harsh conditions that it imposed in return for a further loan. At one point, the finance minister refused to meet IMF officials due to the harsh conditions they were demanding.
From prison, Khan published speeches and declarations which his supporters, especially amongst the middle class, have circulated on social media using AI (Artificial Intelligence) to reproduce his voice. His support, especially amongst the youth, and the momentum his party has gained, has produced a political game changer and challenge to the military. The youth now account for approximately 50% of the electorate. Khan has denounced the military as a “deep state” operating and controlling things from behind the scenes. Repression and harassment of Khan’s supporters in the run up to and during the election campaign only strengthened support for Khan.
Pakistani capitalism and landlordism are in a desperate crisis, which is having devastating consequences for the mass of the population. Around 40% of the population live below the official poverty line of under US$3.5 per day. The foreign debt of US$223.86 billion is crippling the country further. Sates reserves fell to mere US$3.1 billion. Food prices have more than doubled. The devastating floods which hit in 2022, made worse by the feudal land-owners use of the land, cost the economy an estimated US$24 billion. Up to 1,600 clothing factories closed costing an estimated 700,000 workers their jobs. With the lowest per capita income in South Asia, Pakistan stands on the brink of a social explosion. Hunger is rife amongst the poorest. The elections mean a greater instability and a sharper polarisation is certain to follow.
Capitalism and feudalism can offer no way forward or solution to the extreme social and economic crisis gripping the country. At this stage, the military is managing the political process from behind the scenes. It has not sought to openly intervene through a military coup or formal take over. This may change with a prolonged social, economic, and political crisis. The military ruled Pakistan between 1958-71, 1977-88 and 1999-2008. The need for a mass party of the working class, the peasantry and middle class with a revolutionary socialist programme is the only road forward. This is an urgent task and part of the struggle to establish voluntary democratic socialist confederation of South Asia.