Pakistan votes for change, again

For the third election running, Pakistan has voted in a new government. Like last time, it appears that fear of a hung parliament drove a late swing to the front-runner, and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Movement for Justice, is the clear winner.

Of the 270 seats decided, the PTI has 116; short of a majority, but clear of the combined total of its two rivals, the Muslim League – Nawaz with 64 and the Pakistan Peoples Party with 43. It should have little trouble in soaking up enough minor parties and independents to form a majority government.

A PTI spokesman at the weekend was quoted as saying “We are pretty much there,” and that Khan* was expected to be sworn in on about 14 August.

The PTI will again form government in the state of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and probably in Punjab as well; the PPP has retained its majority in Sindh, while local parties again won most of the seats in Balochistan.

Despite a highly unsatisfactory electoral system, the regional variations mean that the National Assembly does a reasonably good job of representing the parties’ voting strength. The PTI won 43.0% of the seats with 31.9% of the vote; the PML-N has 23.7% from 24.4% and the PPP 15.9% from 13.1%.

Another 70 seats are reserved for women and minorities, but they are allocated in proportion to the single-member seats won, so they won’t change the overall picture. Voting in a further two seats has been delayed due to the death of candidates.

The deeper question, of course, is whether the votes as counted reflect the genuine will of the electorate. There’s no doubt that, as I said in last week’s preview, the military’s considerable influence was exercised in favor of the PTI. But while this was not an ideally fair election, there’s nothing implausible in the idea that the majority of voters were keen for a change and willing to give Khan a chance.

The PML-N, while maintaining that the election was rigged, initially promised to take its seats and fulfil the role of parliamentary opposition. More recently it has equivocated on that.

The new prime minister will have conflicting expectations to try to meet. On the one hand, he was the preferred candidate of the military and religious establishment, pitching his appeal in part to the Muslim fundamentalists and supporters of the Taliban.

On the other hand, he is a reformer and a moderniser, someone whose personality fits uneasily with the fundamentalist agenda. As Steve Coll puts it in the New Yorker, “His Westernness has always been a part of his identity, and even of his political appeal inside Pakistan.”

In his victory speech Khan struck a notably conciliatory tone, particularly on the vexed question of relations with India. But it would be unrealistic to think that the military will be willing to let the elected government strike out too far on its own when it comes to foreign policy.

Nonetheless, Pakistan’s democracy is in better shape than it has looked for most of its history, and there are plenty of domestic tasks on which Khan’s reformism can chance its arm.

Rosita Armytage, in a cautiously optimistic report at Inside Story, says that “the new prime minister’s government is likely to be filled with politicians as pragmatic as he is,” and suggests we should “countenance the possibility that Imran the prime minister will differ in positive ways from Imran the candidate.”

And if that doesn’t work, Pakistani voters will probably have little reluctance to again vote for something different next time.


* Terminological note: is he “Imran” or “Khan”? Pakistani naming is a bit confusing (read about it on Wikipedia); as a cricketer he was usually referred to as “Imran”, but the media consensus is now very much for “Khan”, so with some reluctance I have followed suit. Advice from any experts in the field would be appreciated.

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