♟️Pakistan elections: perpetual instability in a military-controlled democracy

Pakistan’s recent elections have produced a two-party ruling coalition, and seemingly ended the confrontation between ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan and his former backers, the military. Yet, while the military’s role as a veto player in Pakistani politics remains unquestioned, its grip is shakier, argue Vasabjit Banerjee and Adnan Rasool

Political and economic instability

In February 2022, the military dislodged former Prime Minister Iman Khan’s government following a vote of no confidence. Many Pakistanis hoped these recent elections would get the country back on track. Political and economic instability, however, were the backdrop to Pakistan's elections in February 2024.

The former allies had a falling-out after Imran Khan resisted the appointment of a new army chief he viewed as an adversary. Khan had risen to power in a similar fashion in 2018, challenging the army more effectively than any of his deposed predecessors. He launched country-wide protests and incited riots, which culminated in a brutal crackdown against him and his party.

Between 2001 and 2015, the percentage of Pakistan’s population living in poverty decreased steadily. Thereafter, it began to rise again due to economic mismanagement, floods in 2022, and the increase in food and energy prices. Now, 39% (approximately 95 million people) are once more plunged below the poverty line.

The army’s key role in Pakistani politics

Amid these challenges, the Pakistan Army has remained the most capable institution in the country. Since its entry into politics back in 1958 through a military coup, it has become a fixture in Pakistani politics. The army ruled directly through coups in the 1970s, and was a significant political engineer through the 1990s and 2010s. The army has a massive conventional force, institutional knowledge, and capacity to maintain the country’s nuclear arsenal. It has filled a space no other institution occupies in Pakistan.

The Pakistan Army has a massive conventional force, institutional knowledge, and capacity to maintain the country’s nuclear arsenal

Despite official denials from Pakistani officials, the country's military tacitly supported the Taliban in its fight to regain control of Afghanistan against coalition forces. Yet Pakistan also remains a key supplier of defence equipment for western-backed efforts to support Ukraine. This contradiction is a testament to the Pakistani military’s ability to walk a tightrope between a close relationship with China on the one hand and a transactional relationship with US and Europe on the other. This balance, however, is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

Electoral manipulation

Pakistan’s National Assembly has 342 seats. Of these, 272 are open seats, 60 are reserved for women, and 10 for non-Muslim minorities. General seats are single-member districts, wherein the member with the most votes gets the seat regardless of whether they win a majority. Seats for women and non-Muslims are distributed according to the seats received by each party. After the elections, members of the National Assembly select the Prime Minister. To gain a majority, a party needs 169 seats. Of the 272 seats, 183 (148 general and 35 women’s seats) are in Punjab, the country’s most populous province. Punjab also dominates recruitment to the military.

The latest round of military interventions included rejecting Imran Khan’s nomination papers, stripping the electoral symbol of his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and rigging the vote count. All this is reminiscent of military election engineering in the 1990s. Back then, this worked in the military’s favour. But in 2024, the result has proved quite different.

The latest round of military interventions included rejecting Imran Khan’s nomination papers, stripping the electoral symbol of his party, and rigging the vote count

Prior to the elections, violence and attacks on military installations by PTI supporters echoed events of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Pakistan veered toward civil war and fragmentation. After the elections, there were nationwide protest marches and political rallies, which the police sought to suppress.

Despite all this, the crackdown has been milder than expected. Indeed, it stands in contrast with the late 1970s, when the military deposed and subsequently executed Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

An unexpected election outcome

Observers expected the 8 February election result to resemble the outcome of the previous elections in 2018. Typically, the party handpicked by the military would win just enough seats to form a comfortable majority government. That government could then stabilise the country by taking difficult and deeply unpopular economic decisions. The military, meanwhile, ensured that the government remained in power without any major obstacles.

Despite credible allegations of electoral malpractice, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf won 93 seats, even though the party competed as an independent

Despite credible allegations of electoral malpractice, the Imran Khan-led PTI won 93 seats, even though the party competed as an independent. The two traditional parties — the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People’s Party led by former President Asif Zardari — won 108 and 68 seats, respectively.

Predictable government outcome

Yet, a month on from the elections, the military got the government it needed. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, ousted from power by the military in 2017, is back. Sharif has formed a coalition with late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s party. Throughout its history, the military has ousted Bhutto's party from power multiple times. Other smaller parties have met a similar fate, all of whom were at one time either created or supported by the military.

Insanity or just business usual for Pakistan?

Is any of this sustainable in the long run? Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way define Pakistan as a competitive authoritarian regime. It is a subset of hybrid regimes that are autocratic, but also contains democratic institutions such as elections and civil liberties.

However, while actors use democratic means to achieve power, autocratic incumbents constantly violate them by harassing opponents, manipulating elections, and suppressing the media. Yet, autocrats cannot remove these democratic arenas of challenge, and the opposition uses them to challenge the regime.

In Pakistan, the military will always be the senior partner. The military works with civilian junior partners who compete in elections: intermittently cooperating and challenging the military in an increasingly unstable equilibrium. Instability in Pakistan is the result of a failing economy, terrorist threat, and violent confrontations between political parties. Yet, with a dominant India on the rise, the notion of Pakistan as a geopolitical goldmine is no longer a sufficient guarantee of external support for its stability.

♟️ No.29 in our Autocracies with Adjectives series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Vasabjit Banerjee Vasabjit Banerjee Assistant Professor of Political Science, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville More by this author
photograph of Adnan Rasool Adnan Rasool Assistant Professor of Political Science, College of Business and Global Affairs, University of Tennessee at Martin More by this author

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