(These articles form a part of the View From India newsletter curated by The Hindu’s foreign affairs experts. To get the newsletter in your inbox every Monday, subscribe here.)
On February 24, 2022, the day Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, Imran Khan, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, was in the Kremlin on an official visit. Back home, relations between Mr. Khan, once a favourite of the country’s powerful military establishment, and the Generals, had started showing rifts. After he returned to Pakistan, the opposition, led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), doubled down on their efforts to topple Mr. Khan’s government, apparently with support of the military. Within two months, Mr. Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote.
The former cricketer-turned-politician, arguably the most popular leader in Pakistan, accused his political rivals of conspiring with the military and a foreign government (the U.S.) to bring him down. He organised multiple public rallies, challenging the new coalition government led by PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif. At one such rally, he waved a paper, purportedly a diplomatic cable sent by the then Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. in 2022 as evidence for “foreign hand” in his ouster (he was later convicted and jailed for 10 years for revealing state secrets).
The government responded with multiple cases against him. He was arrested in May 2023, which triggered violent state-wide protests that saw even Army buildings being vandalised by Mr. Khan’s supporters. His party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was barred from using its popular symbol, the cricket bat, on the ballot paper. Several PTI leaders quit the party under pressure from the powerful sections. Many others were arrested, while some were on the run. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the PML-N, who was in exile in London, returned to the country to lead his party in the February 8 elections. If in the 2018 elections, Mr. Khan was the military’s favourite and Mr. Sharif, who was forced to resign as Prime Minister a year earlier, was its rival, this time the roles were reversed. Sharif emerged as the favourite, while Mr. Khan stayed in jail.
Many thought the results were a foregone conclusion given the climate in which the elections were held. As the PTI was barred from fielding candidates on the party platform, most of its candidates contested as independents. Still, when the results were out, independents emerged as the largest bloc in Pakistan’s National Assembly, with 101 seats. Of these, 93 went to PTI-linked candidates. The PML-N, which had the blessings of the military, won 75 seats, while the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the slain Benazir Bhutto secured 54 seats. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) won 17 seats. To form a government, a leader should show the support of 169 MPs in the National Assembly. Nobody secured an absolute majority.
Immediately after the results were announced, Mr. Nawas Sharif urged all political parties (except the PTI) to join hands to form a unity government. Pakistan’s army chief Asim Munir backed Mr. Sharif’s call for a coalition government a day later. Subsequently, the PNL-N and the PPP reached an agreement to “work together to bring political stability”. The PTI alleges that elections were rigged in some constituencies, and has staked a claim to form the government. But if the other political parties come together with the support of the military, the PTI, despite emerging as the single largest party against all odds, will have to stay out of power. This would also mean that the election results are not going to bring internal stability to Pakistan. Mr. Khan and his popular political vehicle will remain an unresolved political challenge for establishment and its allies.
Top 5 stories we are reading this week:
- Holding Israel accountable, by Prabash Ranjan
- Myanmar’s civil war and India’s interests, by Sanjay Pulipaka
- With China’s help, Maldives plans to lower dependence on India in tourism, trade and healthcare: Data, by Vignesh Radakrishnan and Sonikka Loganathan
- Michelle O’Neill | A Balancing Act, profile by Sriram Lakshman
- Valerii Zaluzhnyi | Fall of the ‘Iron General,’ profile by Stanly Johny