Pakistan’s Elections and ‘Naya’ Pakistan?
Amb D P Srivastava, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Election for Pakistan’s National Assembly saw Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party doubling its vote share from 16.32 percent in the 2013 elections to 31.8 percent. Its seat share went up from 28 to 115. In case of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the voting percentage fell from 32.77 percent in 2013 to 24.29 percent, while its seat share came down more dramatically from 126 to 64. Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) vote percentage declined marginally from 15.23 percent to 13.05 percent, but its seat share actually went up from 33 to 43. The results have evoked different reactions across the political spectrum. Though Nawaz Sharif’s Party has been decimated, Imran Khan has fallen short of majority, and will remain dependent upon the Army’s support to cobble up and maintain his coalition in Islamabad. The results could not have been better from the perspective of ‘extra-terrestrials’, as Nawaz Sharif called the unseen hands guiding the pre-poll process.

Immediately after the elections, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) Party of Maulana Fazlur Rehman called for boycott of the Assemblies. After mulling over it for two days and consulting PPP, PML-N conveyed that it will take part in the National Assembly session. The decision was, no doubt, driven by the calculation that the two mainstream parties hoped to save their hold over provincial governments in Sindh and Punjab. While PPP has retained and consolidated its hold on Sindh, PML-N’s chances to form the government in Punjab, despite being the single largest party, seem tenuous. At the Federal level, the Opposition has announced that it will field candidates to contest the three key posts of Prime Minister (PML-N), Speaker (PPP) and Deputy Speaker.

Elections for the National Assembly were co-terminus with elections for the provincial assemblies. In Punjab, PML-N emerged as the single largest political party with 127 seats, with PTI coming second with 122 seats. To form the government, 149 seats would be needed. Both parties are trying to attract the support of independents and other groups. Each has expressed confidence that it will get the majority and form the government. Whether Imran Khan has the maturity to give space to PML-N to form the government in Punjab, remains to be seen. So far, Imran Khan has shown no sign of accommodation. In a similar situation in 2013, Nawaz Sharif had declined the offer of JUI-F to form the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), upholding the democratic principle that the single largest party should be allowed to form the government. This helped Imran Khan’s PTI to form the government in the province. The decision of the Pakistan Supreme Court Chief Justice, to order review of all major contracts awarded by the Shahbaz Sharif government in the last five years could be an indication that the establishment is unlikely to allow PML-N to retain its hold on the country’s most populous province.

In Sindh, PPP has won 76 out of 130 seats, while PTI has bagged 23 seats. Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) Party has finished third with 11 seats in the provincial assembly. This is a far cry from 37 seats the party got in the 2013 elections. With this configuration, PPP does not need to take MQM on board in the government. A drop in MQM’s seat share or percentage of votes polled is not simply due to a split in the party. Altaf had given a call to boycott the elections. The voter turnout in Karachi dropped from 40 percent in 2013 to 29 percent in 2018. This attests to his hold on the Mohajirs, whatever be the outcome in terms of the legislative process. Karachi election produced a major surprise, where Bilawal Bhutto lost from Lyari, the traditional strong-hold of the PPP. The seat was bagged by Abdul Saad Shadi of PTI.

PTI won 66 seats in the provincial assembly in KP with 32.5 percent votes, Muttahida Majlis–e–Amal (MMA) Party won 10 seats with 17 percent votes and Awami National Party (ANP) got six seats with 12 percent votes. PTI’s victory was remarkable. It could overcome anti- incumbency and still increase its vote share. The ANP, once a major political force in the province, has been steadily losing out to religious parties. But such a dramatic change in the relative position of religious parties is difficult to explain.

Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) emerged as the leading party in Balochistan, marginalising traditional parties like the Baloch National Party (BNP). PML-N, which had formed the government in the province last time, lost badly. It is likely that BAP, with some support from PTI could form the government in the province. Whether they would bring into the legislative process the Baloch nationalist forces, remains to be seen. The voter turn-out went up from 42.8 percent in 2013 to 45.27 percent in 2018.

The impression that religious parties did not win enough seats, ignores the fact that fundamentalism has been mainstreamed in Pakistan. PPP and PML-N tried to ward off the challenge of religious parties by adopting their agenda. PTI went further. Imran Khan’s statement after the election alluded to the ideal of Madinah for the Pakistan of the future. The change in the 2018 elections was in terms of votes gathered by new players. While the old, established grouping of religious parties - JUI (F), MMA - got 4.8 percent votes, Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TeL), a new entrant, came close with 4.2 percent votes. This was the party which provided support to Imran Khan’s street protest against Nawaz Sharif, and obviously had the Army’s backing. Together, the vote share of old and new religious parties in the 2018 elections at nine percent exceeded the combined vote share of JUI – F, MMA and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) at 5.8 percent in the 2013 elections.

TeL did not win any seat in the National Assembly despite scoring 2.231 million votes country-wide. The party candidates were fielded to divide the vote bank of a PML-N, which it has successfully done. What is more impressive, or alarming, is the fact that it bagged more votes in the PPP strong-hold of Lyari, than Bilawal Bhutto, the Chairman of PPP who finished third in the NA-247 seat. The seat was won by PTI’s Abdul Shakoor Shaad. Obviously religion has stronger appeal than social justice, which once used to be PPP’s message even amongst the poor. Though the party did not win National Assembly seat, it won one of the two provincial assembly seats in Lyari. PA 107 seat was won by Mohammad Soomro of TeL.


According to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimate, Pakistan’s fiscal deficit is expected to reach seven percent against the target of 4.1 percent. The foreign exchange reserve had dwindled down to USD 9 billion, as on 20th July, according to State Bank of Pakistan. This is less than two months of imports. Pakistan is expected to approach the IMF for a USD 12 billion bailout package1. The US Secretary of State’s remark, that there is no rationale for the IMF and associated US tax dollars, to go for the payment of Chinese loans, drew a sharp response from Pakistani and Chinese officials. Pakistani officials denied that Pakistan has approached the IMF. The Chinese comment that the IMF has its own rules and procedures, came with the advice that Pakistan should resolve the issues satisfactorily. This was an acknowledgement that a problem exists. In the meantime, the US Congress has reduced the Coalition Support Fund for Fiscal 2019 from USD 700 million to USD 150 million.

Asad Umar, who is expected to be appointed as the Finance Minister in Imran Khan’s Cabinet, stated that Pakistan’s external debt is USD 95 billion2. According to an IMF Report of March 2018, Pakistan’s current account deficit has increased from one percent of GDP in 2014-15 to 4.4 percent in 2017-18. During this period, the share of Chinese debt in Pakistan’s External Debt (non-IMF sources) went up from USD 551 million (out of USD 3,088 million) in 2014-15 to USD 2075 million (out of USD 6,144 million) in 2017-18. In percentage terms, China’s share has gone up from 17.84 percent to 33.77 percent during this period. China as a creditor out-ranked the World Bank at 10.61 percent (USD 652 million) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) at 13.44 percent (USD 824) in the Pakistani debt basket last year. The share of the IMF in external credit was low (seven percent) in 2017, and declining thereafter. The IMF’s influence over Pakistan’s macro-economic policies would also be lower, unless Pakistan manages to secure fresh IMF credit. China could increase its leverage over Pakistan if it decides to go alone in the event of an IMF refusal. But then it will not have the luxury of the IMF bailing out Chinese creditors.

The IMF report was part of a review based on the Pakistan Government’s response, and hence provides an authoritative over-view of the health of Pakistan’s economy. Since the report came out in March 2018, the oil prices have shot up steeply following US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal. Consequently, Pakistan’s current account balance would have deteriorated further.


Imran Khan, like his predecessors, will have to balance between China and the US. He also identified Afghanistan as a priority. He has been invited by President Ghani to visit Kabul. He comes with the baggage, which will make his role as mediator in any dialogue with the Taliban suspicious to the Afghan government. Of all the Pakistani politicians, he has the most pro-Taliban role in Pakistani politics. He has a choice to jettison his domestic constituency, which has contributed to increasing his vote share in KP. This may not be a palatable option.

Imran Khan’s post-election speech called for trade with India. This was in contrast to his fiery speeches on Kashmir on the election trail, where he invoked the old UN Security Council resolutions. Shahbaz Sharif also made strong statements against India. We may grant that candidate Imran and Prime Minister Imran may articulate their positions differently. But the constituency he caters to limits his margin of manoeuver. We could wait and watch how he addresses the Afghan issue. He will also need time, effort and luck to pull the Pakistan economy out of its downward spiral. Stabilising the economy needs control over defence expenditure, and better relations with the neighbours. Successive Pakistani rulers came to realise this once they took over reins of power. Yet, they have been unable to change the status quo.


The election results reflect the growing fragility of Pakistan’s polity with the two largest parties - PML (N) and PPP - reduced to the status of provincial parties. PTI has emerged as the only party with presence in all the four provinces. But its victory may reflect an enduring role of the Pakistani Army and growing Islamisation of the Pakistani society. Whether religion has ironed out the ethnic divide, or that strand will re-surface, only time can tell. Though PTI has staked claim at the Federal as well as Provincial level, it could muster simple majority in only one province - KP.

The Nawa-e-Waqt editorial of 5th August cites a Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) election observer report, that in 169 National and Provincial Assembly constituencies the victory margin was much less than the number of rejected votes. A total of 16,70,000 votes were rejected during the counting. This included 9,06,000 votes rejected in Punjab, 6,08,000 votes rejected in Sindh, 1,08,000 in Balochistan and 2,48,000 in KP. The report mentions that the rejected votes exceed the victory margin in 21 PTI constituencies, six PPP constituencies, 11 PML-N constituencies, three BAP constituencies and three GDA constituencies. Such cases include the NA-131 seat in Lahore won by Imran Khan. The editorial has argued that in all such constituencies, re-counting should be done.

The Punjab High Court has ordered recount in NA-131 seat in Lahore won by Imran Khan by a slender majority. The Court has asked the Election Commission of Pakistan to stop notification of results of this seat. PML-N candidate Khwaja Saad Rafiq, who challenged the result, said that Imran Khan in his post-Election statement has claimed that he was open to investigation in all cases. However, his defence lawyer has opposed re-polling in the constituency, where Imran Khan’s personal fortunes are involved.

‘Naya Pakistan’ of Imran’s conception is increasingly looking like the old.

(Writer is a former diplomat, who has served in Karachi)

End Notes
  1. (2018). Pakistan set to seek up to $12bn IMF bailout | Financial Times. [online] Available at: b639-7680cedcc421 [Accessed 6 Aug. 2018].
  2. KHAN, D. (2018). Drowned in debt | Business Recorder. [online] Business Recorder. Available at: [Accessed 6 Aug. 2018].

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