Deep state pulls strings in Pakistan’s February elections. Will 2018 repeat?

Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N) faces uphill battle on economy, foreign affairs after potential election win.

Published : Jan 11, 2024 11:00 IST - 11 MINS READ

At a rally in Lahore on October 21, 2023, to welcome former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was in a self-imposed exile. 

At a rally in Lahore on October 21, 2023, to welcome former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was in a self-imposed exile.  | Photo Credit: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP

After a turbulent 2023, in which Pakistan witnessed multiple uncertainties in the political, economic, and legal realms, what does the country look like in 2024, especially with the parliamentary and provincial elections scheduled for February 8? Will Pakistan see political stability at the national and provincial levels after the elections? Unlike in 2023, will the national and provincial assemblies witness stability, especially in Pakistan’s crucial province of Punjab? Are Pakistan’s external relations likely to change post-election?

As of January 1, there seems to be some clarity in the electoral situation in Pakistan, though it has not resulted in any political stability. The clarity, ironically, underlines how Pakistan’s electoral history repeats itself. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) is at the receiving end, as Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N, or PML(N), was before the 2018 election. The deep state was engaged in political engineering in Punjab, Balochistan, and Sindh (especially Karachi) then, as it is now. Just before the 2018 elections, there were developments that led to the emergence of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in Punjab, which cut into the PML(N) votes while providing electoral space to the PTI. In Karachi, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement split into multiple factions, providing a bigger space for the PTI. In Balochistan, a new political party, the Balochistan Awami Party, was created just before the 2018 elections; it won the largest number of seats in the province and formed the government in Quetta in coalition with the PTI, to which it extended support in Islamabad.

Another political engineering?

A similar political engineering is taking place in 2024. The deep state is making moves to provide the space for the return of the PML(N) at the cost of Imran and the PTI. Following the PTI-led violence on May 9, 2023, against the establishment, the latter has decided to replace Imran with the Sharifs, both at the national level and in Punjab. Multiple cases have been levelled against Imran and those who were a part of his party’s inner club. Efforts are on to keep Imran in jail and disqualify him. He is waging a legal fight to restore even his party’s symbol, the cricket bat. Most PTI leaders have left Imran; some have joined a new party, the Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party (IPP), led by Jahangir Khan Tareen, who was once close to Imran. The establishment is trying to ensure that the IPP makes a deal with the PML(N) in Punjab.

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The biggest challenge for Imran in the one month before the elections is to have a level playing field for himself and the party. The Sharifs and the PML(N) faced a similar challenge in 2018, and failed. The PTI’s fate has been decided even before the first vote has been polled, as the PML(N)’s was before the 2018 elections. The deep state seems to be in control of deciding the outcome of the 2024 elections, as it was in 2018.

Punjab holds the key

Punjab will decide the fate of Pakistan’s National Assembly in 2024 and who will rule the country, as it did in 2018 and 2014. Of 342 seats in the parliament, 173 are from Punjab, followed by Sindh (75), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (55), and Balochistan (20). A party can form the government if it wins the seats from Punjab without even winning a single one from the other three provinces. The PTI could form the government in 2018 because it won substantial seats from Punjab, Karachi, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The political engineering is taking place mainly in Punjab and is in favour of the PML(N) and the IPP and against the PTI in Punjab. While the PML(N) is a cadre-based party in Punjab, the IPP has the “electable”, where individual political leaders who have influence in a particular constituency are assimilated into the party.

What is in the PTI’s favour in Punjab in 2024? Although the rise of the TLP cut into PML(N) votes in 2018, a bigger factor was the rise of Imran’s popularity in Punjab, especially among young voters. While political engineering did help the PTI in Punjab, Imran’s charm and popularity played an important role in the party’s sweep over Punjab. In 2024, the PTI may still get more seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but lose Punjab and, thereby, Pakistan. In Punjab, Imran may be swept away with political machinations, the return of Nawaz Sharif, and the hint that the establishment is with the PML(N). As they say, Punjab always votes where the establishment wants it to.

Regional pulls in Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, the 2024 elections will likely repeat what happened in 2018. Despite the pre-election problems that it is facing with the Election Commission of Pakistan, and the judicial cases that are not going in its favour (bail for Imran, bat as a symbol for the PTI, and rejection of nomination papers), the PTI is likely to secure the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly. The Awami National Party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has struggled with factional and leadership problems. Despite having influence in a few constituencies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, both factions of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Pakistan (JUI) may not be able to challenge the PTI in the province. Are the people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa likely to vote against the PTI, as those in Punjab will be doing, following the establishment wind? Less likely.

In Sindh, especially outside Karachi, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is expected to win both the provincial and national assemblies. It is unlikely to secure any in Punjab or many in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The PPP has been engaged in its own political alliance formation in Balochistan and in some traditional pockets in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, outside Sindh, they are not going to change the electoral outcome much for the PPP.

Supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan rioting in Lahore on March 15, 2023.

Supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan rioting in Lahore on March 15, 2023. | Photo Credit: K.M. Chaudary/AP

In Balochistan, there will likely be an assortment of provincial parties, religious political parties and a few seats for the national parties, the PPP and the PML(N). While Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh may see stability in the provincial assemblies, Balochistan will see a coalition like what happened in 2014 and 2018. The reasons are simple: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh have stable provincial parties with a large following, and the deep state will find it difficult to swing the opposite way.

  • The deep state is attempting to provide space for the return of PML(N) at the cost of Imran Khan’s PTI.
  • Imran Khan faces a challenge to maintain a level-playing field for himself and the party.
  • The political engineering is mainly in Punjab, which will decide the fate of Pakistan’s National Assembly in 2024.

What will change and what won’t after the elections?

Polling may be free on the day of the elections, but the process has not been fair so far. Imran and the PTI do not have a level playing field. Should the PTI complain about it? The PML(N) faced the same situation before the 2018 elections, and the PTI was the beneficiary then.

Following the February 2024 elections, the PML(N) is likely to return to power, both nationally and in Punjab. If the PML(N) gets a majority or forms a coalition with other parties from Balochistan and Karachi, it may bring stability at the national level. Unless it gets more seats in Punjab, the PPP may end up in the opposition and be satisfied with a government in Karachi.

This would mean Pakistan will return to the PML(N)- and PPP-led polity, with other parties from the smaller provinces playing a supporting role. This may even provide some stability to the federation.

Punjab province should see political stability after the February elections. In 2022-23, Punjab saw three Chief Ministers (Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, Hamza Shabaz, and Usman Buzdar) from three different parties (PML-Q, PML(N), and PTI) and multiple legal cases with regard to the election. The most important province witnessed the worst political wrangling during the last two years. It may change and get back to the old equilibrium, with the PML(N) calling the shots. Unless Jahangir Tareen’s IPP manages to win more seats in Punjab.

What will not change is the establishment’s hold over the polity and its ability to engineer a political set-up by pitting one party against the other or by manipulating the outcome outside the polling. So, for Pakistan, post-elections would be more of the same. And a repeat of the past.

External relations

The immediate priority for the new government will be Afghanistan. Cross-Durand relations have never been as unstable as they are now. The relationship between the deep state that helped create the Taliban and the latter’s leadership hit rock bottom last year. While there was an expectation that the US exit from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to Kabul in 2021 would make Pakistan’s western frontier stable, the opposite happened. As the security situation across the Durand Line became unstable with the TTP’s (Pakistani Taliban) incursions, the relationship between Islamabad and Kabul worsened further. What was once a strategic depth for the establishment has now become a strategic trap.

Pakistan’s decision to leverage the Afghan migrants by forcing them to return backfired further. The carrots have not worked; the sticks have made it worse. Pakistan’s Afghan policy is a mess.

Revitalising the economy should be Pakistan’s second major external challenge, as much of it depends on Islamabad’s ability to strike a deal with the IMF. The relationship between Pakistan and the IMF was ruptured during the PTI’s tenure. Contrary to Imran’s expectation, the Chinese and the Arabs did not step in. After numerous dialogues and heartbreaks, in July 2023 Pakistan reached an understanding with the IMF for a nine-month Stand-By-Agreement for $3 billion. Of this, in November 2023, after a tough round of discussions, Pakistan could get a preliminary deal of $700 million.

The next tranche will likely be released following another round of negotiations this January. However, this has not been an easy one so far, and it is less likely to be so for the new government. The caretaker government could afford to swallow some bitter pills, but the new government might not. It will impact further negotiations with the IMF.

The third major challenge would be to revitalise the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and elevate the Islamabad-Beijing axis to realise the higher-than-Himalayas and deeper-than-oceans rhetoric. In 2023, China and Pakistan observed the 10th anniversary of the CPEC; while there has been an expansion in the scope of the CPEC projects, the harsh reality for Pakistan (and China) has been its slow pace. Gwadar is the perfect example of the difference between hype and reality.

Afghan refugees pass by an outdoor girls’ classroom in Torkham in Khyber district, Pakistan, on November 18, 2023. Pakistan’s decision to leverage the Afghan migrants by forcing them to return backfired.

Afghan refugees pass by an outdoor girls’ classroom in Torkham in Khyber district, Pakistan, on November 18, 2023. Pakistan’s decision to leverage the Afghan migrants by forcing them to return backfired. | Photo Credit: EBRAHIM NOROOZI/AP

The new government’s challenge will be to not only revive CPEC projects but also to get China on board to replace declining US interest in Pakistan. Pakistan could harvest the geopolitical rent during the US-Afghan war in the 1980s and subsequently continue it post-9/11. President Donald Trump called the bluff, and President Joe Biden has been continuing it. Pakistan is now low on the US’ priority list; worse, for Islamabad, US-India relations have been on an upward swing. An unstable Afghanistan, lack of hold in Kabul, and an indifferent US is disastrous for Pakistan. Hence, it is imperative for Pakistan to make its geography useful by pushing the same to appeal to China. Gwadar, access to the Arabian Sea, Africa, and India’s western flank should be some of the talking points while inviting China into Pakistan. Will China walk the CPEC talk with the new government?

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Although not an immediate priority as Afghanistan, India will remain the biggest challenge for the new government in Islamabad. With the general election approaching in India, the BJP government is less likely to send any signal to Pakistan to improve bilateral relations. Nor is New Delhi likely to redo Article 370 and bring it back. Without these two, it will be tough for the new government in Pakistan to initiate any dialogue with India.

A final external challenge for the new government would be the US. Imran has completely ruptured the relationship with the US; “cable gate”, as it was referred to, marked the rock bottom of the bilateral equation. Will the new government be able to undo what has happened? In 2024, the US will also hold a presidential election. The lack of substantial change between the Trump and Biden administrations vis-a-vis Pakistan in the past eight years should underline the big challenge for Pakistan in the White House. Worse, Pakistan’s approach towards the Taliban and US troops in 2001-21 has also left it with fewer friends in the Pentagon as well. Outside the White House and the Pentagon, there was some support for Pakistan in the US Congress. That is likely to decline further as Pakistan and the US back opposing actors in West Asia and Gaza.

For the new government, most likely for the PML(N) and Nawaz Sharif, it will not be an easy walk with Pakistan’s foreign policy, especially in the neighbourhood.

D. Suba Chandran is Professor & Dean, School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru.

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