The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Pakistanis did their civic duty and went to the polls earlier this month.

On February 8, an auspicious day unfolded in Pakistan as the sun rose to meet almost 60 million voters at the polls. This emblematic procession, a testament to the enduring spirit of democracy in Pakistan, drew a 48.8 percent turnout.

Pakistani voters, in a display of civic duty, elected their representatives for the National Assembly and provincial assemblies. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), although the subject of acerbic critique, managed to hold the country’s largest electoral exercise in a reasonably orderly fashion. Notwithstanding this achievement, the delay in tallying and announcing the preliminary results cast a pall over the otherwise orderly proceedings.

As the electoral dust settled, the National Assembly found itself in a state of equipoise, a hung parliament with no single party in clear ascendance, leading to spirited efforts to form a coalition government. A delicate dance of power-sharing for the federal and Punjab governments is underway, with negotiations nearing their denouement.

The national stage saw the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) carve out a prominent presence with 79 seats, while the Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) secured a commendable 54 seats. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) backed independents stood victorious in 92 constituencies, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) solidified its base with 17 seats out of Karachi.

The provincial landscape presents a clearer picture. The PPPP is on the cusp of reclaiming its government in Sindh province. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s allied independents appear set to continue their governance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Meanwhile, in Balochistan, a coalition led by the PPPP is expected to form. The situation in Punjab province is a cliffhanger, a neck-to-neck battle between PTI-backed independents and PML-N. Yet, it is widely anticipated that the PML-N will cobble together the requisite support from smaller factions to establish governance in this most populous province.

Pakistan operates under a parliamentary system where, at the national level, voters elect 336 members to the National Assembly every five years. Of these, 226 seats are filled through a single-member district system operating on a first-past-the-post basis. Meanwhile, 60 seats reserved for women and 10 for non-Muslims are allocated through a proportional representation party-list system based on the tally of general seats won by each political entity. At the provincial echelon, voters elect 749 members across four assemblies. Here too, 593 general seats are contested similarly to the National Assembly, complemented by 132 seats reserved for women and 24 for non-Muslims. The adjudication for general seats has culminated, and the allotment process for reserved seats, contingent on the final general seat results, will soon be initiated. Electoral connoisseurs assert that due to the current statutes, PTI-backed independents may find themselves at a disadvantage in claiming their share of reserved seats unless they affiliate with an established party within the legislative assembly.

Elections in Pakistan are a multifaceted endeavor, a sophisticated game of strategy and contest at each juncture. In the pre-poll stage, political entities expressed discontent, arguing for a lack of parity in the electoral contest. Despite numerous obstacles—including the ominous cloud of electoral violence—a significant number of candidates, nearly 18,000, vied for the 336 National and 749 Provincial Assembly seats. The pre-election phase was marred by inequities and skirmishes. Notably, PTI-backed candidates faced constraints in their campaign efforts but adeptly turned to social media to rally and galvanize the youth electorate. The specter of electoral violence loomed large, particularly in the northwestern regions. Attacks, which tragically claimed lives and left many wounded, aimed to disrupt the electoral fabric. However, the resilience of the political community, bolstered by counter-terrorism efforts, ensured a largely peaceful election day.

Militant factions, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qaeda, Daish, and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), were implicated as the principal architects of the electoral violence. In contrast, on election day, the interim government’s suspension of Internet and mobile services, defended as a security measure by Interior Minister Gohar Ejaz, was met with vociferous objections from political groups, civil society, and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), calling for an immediate reconnection. This act, while meant as a safeguard, was perceived by many as an infringement on electoral integrity and a barrier to voter participation.

As the dust of the February 8th electoral marathon begins to settle, the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN)—Pakistan’s preeminent domestic election observer body—has offered its panoramic view of the proceedings. With over 5,000 sentinels of democracy deployed across the voting landscape, FAFEN’s scrutineers have rendered their verdict on the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) management of what has been hailed as the country’s largest electoral endeavor to date. In a milieu rife with political contention, the ECP’s orchestration of the elections was, for the most part, a testament to orderliness, despite the cacophony of dissent from various political factions. A legion of electoral staff, exceeding 1.1 million, navigated the political maelstrom to uphold the day’s democratic rites.

FAFEN’s lens captured the integrity of the vote, observing a largely uncontested voting and counting process—a beacon of propriety amid turbulent seas. Yet, the reportage is not without its blemishes; there flickers the sporadic ember of contention, as parties and candidates lamented their entitlement to election result forms—a procedural cornerstone.

In the face of looming shadows cast by militant and political tumult, over 700,000 custodians of peace—drawn from the ranks of police and military—stood sentinel outside the polling sanctuaries. Their presence, a bulwark against the specter of violence, could not, however, eclipse the disarray bred by the ECP’s protracted tallying and disclosure of preliminary results. This is a smudge on the otherwise meticulous canvas.

FAFEN, in its treatise, has cast a critical eye on the caretaker government’s contentious decision to sever cellular and Internet lifelines on election day. A measure, ostensibly for security, is argued to have fractured the integrity and transparency championed by the Election Act of 2017—a legislative effort intended to be the sine qua non of electoral reform. In the quagmire of the post-election landscape, the ECP stands at a crossroads, tasked with the onus to promptly and meritoriously address the grievances of the political syndicate. The call is for introspection, for the ECP to sift through its own procedural web, and to strengthen its accountability to the electorate and the political entities, all within the ambit of the Election Act of 2017 and the broader international human rights frameworks.

The post-electoral epoch is marked by a crucible moment for the nation’s political custodians. Amidst the remnants of a two-year-long polarizing storm that has left social fissures and a beleaguered economy in its wake, there is an imperative for all political stakeholders. The clarion call is for a divestment from the shackles of personal and factional agendas, to embark on a collaborative odyssey towards political and economic equanimity, to enshrine the tenets of constitutional democracy, and to nurture the rule of law within the heart of Pakistan.

Ikram Ali, an alumnus of Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, holds a Master’s degree in History. With a rich tapestry of experience spanning over 15 years, Ikram has honed his expertise through collaborations with preeminent global organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), and Democracy Reporting International (DRI), advocating for comprehensive political and electoral reforms in Pakistan. His dedication to fostering governance excellence was further recognized in 2018 when he completed the prestigious South and Central Asia Legislative Fellows Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, affirming his role as a distinguished scholar and practitioner in the realm of democracy and governance.