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Electoral system and headline results

On 8 February 2024, Pakistan held elections for its National Assembly and four provincial assemblies.

Pakistan has a parliamentary system of government, with most executive powers held by the Prime Minister. The President is head of state, but the role is largely ceremonial.

The National Assembly has 342 seats. 272 of those seats are directly elected using a first past the post voting system. 60 seats are reserved for women, and 10 seats are reserved for non-Muslims, and these reserved seats are awarded on a proportional basis based on the number of seats in the National Assembly won by the different political parties.

On election day independents aligned with former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice, PTI) party won the largest number of directly elected seats, 92, but were short of a majority.

Run up to the election

Imran Khan, leader of the PTI, was Prime Minister from 2018 to 2022, when he was removed in a vote of no confidence. Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, became Prime Minister forming a coalition with Bilawal Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

In October 2022, Imran Khan was barred by Pakistan’s Election Commission (ECP) from standing for election for five years and removed from his parliamentary seat due to allegations of corruption. In May 2023 Imran Khan was arrested on charges of corruption, sparking protests by his supporters, some of which turned violent, and involved attacks on military installations. As a result, some protestors and senior leaders of the party were arrested and sent to be tried by military courts.

In October 2023, former three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N party, brother of Shehbaz Sharif, returned to Pakistan after four years in London. In 2018 he had been convicted and imprisoned on two charges of corruption but was given leave to travel to the UK for medical treatment. On his return he launched legal challenges to his convictions, and within several weeks both were quashed and the bar on his running for political office removed. Critics suggested a deal with the country’s military was behind his return and the swift reversal of his legal fortunes.

In January 2024, the courts ruled that the PTI had not held valid internal elections, and so were unable to stand as a party during the elections, therefore its candidates would have to stand as independents, and they were blocked from using their party symbol of the cricket bat on ballot papers. Party symbols are particularly important to help illiterate voters identify which party to vote for.

In January 2024 also, Imran Khan was convicted in two legal cases and sentenced to 10 years in jail for leaking state secrets, and to 14 years for illegally selling state gifts.

Pakistan’s military have removed democratically elected governments through coups on several occasions, and remain a powerful political institution. The military are credited in part with bringing Imran Khan to power in 2018, and are now believed to have worked to ensure his PTI party will not return to government and are seen to be supporting the PML-N/PPP parties.

Election results

In what was widely seen as a surprise result, due to its legal setbacks and the jailing of Imran Khan, independents backed by the PTI party won the largest number (92), of Pakistan’s directly elected National Assembly seats.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won 75 of the directly elected seats, and the Pakistan People’s Party 54 seats. None of the parties had enough seats for a majority.

In the provincial elections, only in Balochistan was there a change in the parties in control of the provincial assemblies. Incumbent parties remained in power in Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), including PTI-aligned independents in the KP assembly.

Claims of vote rigging and protests

In the days following the election, protests broke out as PTI supporters took to the streets alleging that there had been widespread vote-rigging.

After the election statements from the international community, including the UK, US and EU, expressed concerns over freedom of expression, and the upholding of human rights ahead of the election. The UK also raised the issue of party leaders and parties being excluded by legal processes and unable to use party symbols. The US called for any claims of interference or fraud to be fully investigated.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry released its own statement in response saying it was “surprised by the negative tone of some of these statements, which neither take into account the complexity of the electoral process, nor acknowledge the free and enthusiastic exercise of the right to vote by tens of millions of Pakistanis”.

At the time of writing, election observer missions by the Commonwealth and EU have yet to report. However, the Commonwealth observer mission did release an interim statement (PDF) in which they said they had “received reports of incidents of intimidation and even violence against candidates, members of the media and other citizens”. The statement did not mention any problems with the counting of the votes themselves.

Allocation of reserved seats and new Government formed

Having been unable to stand as a party in the general election, the Election Commission ruled that the PTI’s independent candidates were ineligible for the reserved seats in both the National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies. The PTI then announced it would join the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC), a right-wing Islamic political party, in a bid to make them eligible for the reserved seats. The SIC while registered as a political party did not actually contest the National Assembly elections.

In early March the ECP ruled that the SIC wasn’t eligible to claim its quota of the reserved seats, because the party had failed to submit a party list for reserved candidates before the ECP’s deadline of 22 February. The PTI/SIC have filed legal claims to appeal this decision. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the latest appeal in June 2023.

The allocation of reserved seats, and the joining of some independents to the party left the PML-N as the largest party, with a total of 123 seats. The PPP finished on 73 seats, making them the third largest party after the 92 PTI-backed independents.

Post election, the PML-N and PPP formed a new coalition government with six other smaller parties, giving them just over a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. Shehbaz Sharif, Prime Minister before the 2024 election, was elected to the office once again.

The PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari was elected President (the post is indirectly elected by members of the National and provincial assemblies) with the support of the PML-N-led governing coalition.

What next for Pakistan?

Analyses of the election results have said that the Pakistan’s military has retained its role as a key powerbroker, and even that the new government will “will function as a junior partner to the military”.

Supporters of the PTI are still likely to try and use street protests and campaigning to try and provide political momentum for the party, but without resetting relations with the military, observers believe that Imran Khan is unlikely to be able to change his political fortunes.

Pakistan has been suffering from a significant economic crisis. Having received a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) before the election, the new government is now reportedly in talks with the IMF for a new larger and longer-lasting funding programme. However, in return Pakistan will likely have to implement painful and unpopular economic measures such as raising taxes and cutting some spending.

Curbing rising terrorist violence, particularly in its Balochistan and KP provinces will be another difficult issue for the new government, and Pakistan believes that Afghanistan is providing refuge for some terrorist groups, as well as support, something the Taliban-regime deny.

Managing fraught relations with Afghanistan will be a key foreign policy task for the new government. Others will be continuing to build on already strong links with key ally China. Most analysts believe that Pakistan is unlikely, at least in the short term, to be able to improve relations with its neighbour India.

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