With a new dispute over a regional election, Pakistan is bracing for more instability amid an opposition movement aimed at toppling Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and limiting the powerful military’s political role.
Hours after the results of a regional election in northern Gilgit-Baltistan, part of the disputed Kashmir region bordering India and China, leaders of two major political parties cried foul.
“Your mandate has been stolen,” Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), told supporters at a protest rally in the regional capital, Gilgit, on November 16. The PPP is a key component of the Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDM), an opposition alliance.
“Will you allow ballot boxes to be taken away?” he asked. “Your protest will continue here and wherever rigging was done.”
Maryam Nawaz, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) party, echoed his disappointment.
“Despite using the state’s force and government machinery and forcing [candidates] to change their allegiance, it is shameful that even a simple majority could not be secured,” she tweeted.
But Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party celebrated victory in the election and termed it a rejection of the opposition.
"This was a very transparent election," Information and Broadcasting Minister Shibli Faraz said. "Actually, the opposition and especially the PML-N have a tradition of declaring elections they win as fair while labeling those they lose as being rigged,” he said.
According to Radio Pakistan, the state broadcaster, preliminary results showed the PTI leading with a win of nine seats out of the 24 general seats. Independents, many of whom usually join the majority party, won seven seats. The PPP won three seats while the PML-N secured only two seats.
The disputed election in Gilgit-Baltistan is likely to rally the PDM parties and give them fresh ammunition against Khan’s administration and powerful generals. Three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, PML-N leader and a key force behind the PDM, has blamed the military for rigging elections, manipulating power, and building “a state above the state” to undermine the constitutional order in Pakistan.
After staging three major protests last month, the PDM focused its efforts on a campaign for the election in Gilgit-Baltistan. The protest movement is scheduled to resume this month. In September, PDM leaders indicated they might march on Islamabad in January if their agitation fails to oust Khan.
“We are in for uncertainty as each of these players jostles for position,” Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan specialist at the London Chatham House think tank, told Gandhara. “There will be plenty more instability, uncertainty.”
Sheikh, however, is hesitant to predict any radical changes. “Barring some kind of dramatic development, I don’t see any strong grounds for change except those that for the time being will be decided by the military,” she said.
She argues that any significant development would have to come from the military. “They will engineer and manipulate possibly through a minus-one formula -- possibly through a deal with one or two opposition parties,” she said, alluding to a scenario in which the military would force Khan to step down.
But veteran observers in Islamabad say something far different is at play.
Afrasiab Khattak, a former lawmaker, argues that Khan’s failure to deliver good governance, economic prosperity, and protected rights for Pakistanis while oppressing dissent has helped the opposition attracting tens of thousands of people to its protests.
He says Sharif, a key leader of eastern Punjab Province, has decided to publicly call out the two top army generals, whom Khattak says Sharif considers the main pillars and key architects of the current government.
“Nawaz's narrative is resonating with the people,” Khattak noted. “The military is at its wit's end in tackling a powerful political uprising in Punjab.” Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous and prosperous province and is the key recruiting ground for the military. Thus, the region’s electoral preference decides the national mandate.
In this situation, Khattak is not optimistic about the prospect success for past models of diffusing political crises.
“An authentic and influential Punjabi leader has mustered the courage to call out the sitting military leadership,” he noted. “The economy is in shambles, and the state and society are bursting at the seams under the deepening social, ethnic, and sectarian fault lines.”
But Major General Babar Iftikhar, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, recently denied chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had any political role.
“The army chief made it clear that their [the opposition’s] legal problems will be solved in Pakistan’s courts while the political issues will be resolved in the parliament,” he said of Bajwa’s meeting with a PML-N leader in the summer. “He reiterated that the army should be kept away from these issues.”
Meanwhile, Islamabad is seeking to ban political gatherings. On November 16, Khan cited rising coronavirus cases as a reason to restrict rallies and protests.
“We have decided to ban public gatherings in the country, including ours planned over the weekend, as large crowds help in the spread of the virus,” Khan said in a televised address to announce new measures.