Islamabad, Pakistan – The stunning results of Pakistan’s 2024 general election have underscored the enduring popularity of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, despite a concerted effort by the powerful military establishment to sideline him from power.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party swept to victory in the key province of Punjab, and emerged as the largest single party nationally in the February 8 polls. This was despite Khan himself being barred from contesting and his party being denied its official electoral symbol and identity.
The PTI chairman now stands as the central figure in Pakistan’s fractured political landscape. Meanwhile, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of three-time former premier Nawaz Sharif has been left licking its wounds after a disappointing performance that defied predictions.
In the months leading up to the election, Khan had railed against a “foreign conspiracy” between the US and Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership to remove him as prime minister. He was eventually ousted in April 2022 through a parliamentary no-confidence vote brought by an alliance of opposition parties.
Khan claimed he was paying the price for following an independent foreign policy on issues like Russia and China. He also blamed the army for colluding in his removal. The military leadership denied his accusations but appeared to distance itself from Khan as relations deteriorated.
Shortly after Khan’s ouster, Nawaz Sharif returned from self-imposed exile to lead the PML-N into the election. He had been sentenced in absentia on corruption charges in 2018 while Khan was prime minister. But with the military now seemingly supportive of the PML-N, legal cases against Sharif were swiftly dropped.
Meanwhile, Khan and his PTI faced growing repression. The party’s officials were arrested, Khan himself was jailed and prevented from standing, and the PTI was barred from using its cricket bat symbol. The PML-N-led government even invoked constitutional powers to censor Khan’s speeches.
Yet once the election campaign got underway, the swelling crowds at Khan’s rallies demonstrated his popularity remained undimmed. The PTI tapped into anger at economic hardship under the new administration, as well as outrage at the perceived victimization of Khan.
When the results emerged, the PTI had swept to victory in Punjab province, defying opinion polls that predicted a comfortable PML-N win. Nationally, PTI-backed independent candidates emerged as the largest bloc with 95 seats, just short of a majority. The PML-N trailed on 75 seats, despite predictions they were on course to regain power.
Khan was quick to declare it a “landslide” victory demonstrating he had defeated the combined might of the military and political elite. The PML-N was left stunned as their expected dominance failed to materialize even in their heartlands. Analysts described the result as a “shock upset” and a stinging rebuke to the attempts to marginalize Khan.
Several factors were cited for the PML-N’s underperformance. After helping oust Khan, their priority had been legal reprieve for the exiled Sharif rather than effective governance. The resulting economic misery under their watch damaged the party’s reputation.
Critics also suggest the PML-N misread the public mood by enabling the repression of PTI rather than condemning it. And with Sharif exiled in London, he lost his instincts for managing media messaging – leaving the party on the backfoot and unable to adapt.
Attention now turns to the challenging task of coalition building in Pakistan’s fragmented parliament. While the PTI has emerged as the largest party, analysts suggest the onus is on them to show maturity and take the politically sensitive step of inviting the PML-N to form government.
With the economy in a parlous state, Pakistan can ill afford destabilizing political turmoil. The PML-N will also need to reflect deeply on the miscalculations that caused their predicted landslide to evaporate. Despite enjoying the apparent backing of the military establishment, the party failed to overcome the enduring charisma of Imran Khan.
For Khan himself, the election is a stunning vindication after months of state repression. The attempt to silence him through coercion ultimately backfired as the public rallied behind him. The former cricket star can claim to have defeated not only the three-time premier Sharif, but also the entrenched power of Pakistan’s “deep state”.
However, Khan’s biggest test still lies ahead as he transitions from plucky outsider to leading a government. With tensions still raw, joining hands with dynastic opponents like the PML-N will require political maturity. Khan will also have to demonstrate he can unite a divided nation and stabilize an economy in deep crisis.
Most crucially, having stood up to the military, Khan will now have to prove he can work with the army rather than remain confrontational. The security establishment remains Pakistan’s most powerful institution and will expect to have a central role in policymaking.
Khan gained much support by targeting corruption, so his administration will be under close scrutiny on governance. He led the country for over three and a half years before being removed. But this election has given him a fresh democratic mandate to implement his vision for a ‘Naya Pakistan‘.
The road ahead will not be straightforward. Forming a stable coalition, repairing civil-military ties, reviving the economy and containing political opposition – Khan faces a mountainous task. But for now, he can savor a hard-fought election triumph over both the PML-N and the military establishment who sought to marginalize him.