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Pakistan’s Majority Party Faces First Political Test

Pakistani men sit near a poster of Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (Movement for Justice) party Imran Khan, in Islamabad on July 30.
Pakistani men sit near a poster of Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (Movement for Justice) party Imran Khan, in Islamabad on July 30.

For years, the leaders of Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), or the Movement for Justice party, have promised an Islamic welfare state and dubbed their opponents crooks and thieves.

But days after emerging as the majority party in the central parliament, winning a smaller province and ending up a close runner-up in Pakistan’s largest province, the PTI is grappling with the fundamental realities of Pakistani politics.

Its leaders are working overtime to ensure the simple majority needed to form governments in Islamabad and in the eastern province of Punjab. In northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where the PTI won a clear majority, its leaders are fighting hard over political spoils.

The party’s challenges are magnified by the fact that most political parties have already united in opposition. Their claims that the election is riddled with widespread irregularities and rigging overshadow the entire process. The PTI’s initial tests are undermining its claims that it represents a new kind of politics rooted in merit, transparency, and opposition to corruption.

On July 30, several political parties united in a grand opposition to protest what they termed unprecedented rigging in the July 25 vote. While lacking a clear majority among the 272 directly elected seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of the Pakistani Parliament, PTI secured 115 seats, which forms a plurality of the seats. Former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) secured 64 seats. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) came in third with 43 seats. Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA), an alliance of Islamist political parties, smaller parties, and independent candidates snatched up the remaining seats.

“The entire world, the nation, and the ECP [Election Commission of Pakistan] should note there is no instance of all parties rejecting election results unanimously like this ever," MMA leader Maulana Fazlu Rehman told journalists on July 30 after meeting with the leaders of PML-N. PPP, Awami National Party (ANP), and several others.

The parties are calling on Pakistani Chief Election Commissioner Sardar Muhammad Raza to resign and blame Pakistan’s powerful military of orchestrating the PTI’s win. They plan to convene an ‘all-parties’ conference this week to reach out to more groups and deliberate on a joint action plan.

The military and the ECP deny election rigging and have ordered probes and recounts in more than two dozen constituencies.

PTI leaders, however, seem unconcerned about the legitimacy of the election. Instead, they are trying to resolve the immediate issue of securing a majority in the National Assembly to form a government this week.

Their efforts have so far focused on winning over independent members of parliament. Even if the party secures a majority, it is unlikely to muster overwhelming support for leader and former cricketer Imran Khan, who said he wants to establish a “humanitarian state, where we take responsibility for our weaker classes” in his victory speech last week.

Political jockeying is at its peak in Punjab, where the PTI was close second behind PML-N’s 129 seats in the 297 directly elected general seats. The PTI now claims to be nearing 140 seats after reaching out to independents and striking an alliance with the Muslim League Qaud-I-Azam.

But while the PTI might muster enough support to form these two administrations, a rivalry between its top leaders is likely to pose a major challenge. Before the election, businessman Jahangir Tareen and feudal lord Shah Mehmood Qureshi led opposing factions within the PTI. They are the two most senior PTI leaders after Khan and have reportedly clashed over the new administrations. The PTI, however, denies any rifts.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PTI established a clear majority by winning 66 out of the 99 directly elected seats. Pervez Khattak, a former chief minister, the most senior elected provincial leader, is insisting on leading the PTI administration again.

“The party has a huge mandate in the country just because of my performance in KP,” Khattak told Pakistan’s Geo TV. “They have offered [me] the post of president, speaker of the National Assembly, and all of the important ministries, but none of these suits me.”

Infighting is not the only challenge awaiting the party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. On July 30, the ANP protested what its leaders called rigged elections.

“Our country might see instability if those ‘selected’ to run the country are not the true representatives of the people,” ANP leader Asfandyar Wali Khan told supporters.