Mint Explainer: What an election upset in Pakistan could mean for India

Pakistan's jailed former prime minister Imran Khan remains hugely popular in the country, despite the return of Nawaz Sharif, who was widely expected to win the election with the support of Pakistan’s powerful military. (Reuters)
Pakistan's jailed former prime minister Imran Khan remains hugely popular in the country, despite the return of Nawaz Sharif, who was widely expected to win the election with the support of Pakistan’s powerful military. (Reuters)

Summary

Imran Khan, even from behind bars, might have led his party to a win in Pakistan’s general election, going by early trends. Pakistan’s military is unlikely to be happy with that outcome

Pakistan’s general election has taken an unexpected twist. Early trends indicate that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) might have stolen a march on its political rivals in the polls, even with its leader, the flamboyant former World Cup-winning cricket captain, behind bars on various corruption charges. A PTI win would also present a setback to the country’s powerful military. Mint explains the potential implications of a PTI win.

 

What exactly is happening?

On Thursday, 130 million Pakistani voters went to the polls to elect a new national government. The election had three major players. The first was the Pakistan Muslim League (N), led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. A three-time prime minister, Sharif was widely expected to win a “managed" election with the support of Pakistan’s powerful military. 

However, the jailed former prime minister Imran Khan remained the most popular politician in the country. Despite numerous impediments, early trends on Friday indicated that Khan’s PTI party was set to dominate its political rivals at the polls.

Why does this matter?

For decades, Pakistan’s military has dominated the country’s politics directly or indirectly. It is widely understood that the military remains the most powerful actor in the country, wielding the ability to make and unmake governments.

Even Khan, analysts say, rode to power in 2018 as the military’s candidate of choice. However, this relationship later soured. 

During the latter part of Khan’s tenure as prime minister (2018-2022) he clashed with the military over top military appointments and control over foreign policy. When he was removed from office on corruption charges in 2022, Khan blamed the military for his ouster. 

After Khan’s supporters attacked military establishments in 2023, his PTI was targeted by the armed forces. Khan and his top aides were jailed while his party splintered. 

The military also threw its weight behind Sharif, who returned to Pakistan in October after spending four years in the UK. Sharif had also been imprisoned earlier over corruption charges. He moved to London in November 2019 breaking bail, which he had secured on medical grounds.

What happens now?

It is unclear if the early trends will hold up. Official results from the Election Commission of Pakistan have been slow. This has led to allegations of bias and charges of vote counts being changed, enhancing fears of an unfair election. 

It is also unclear if the military will accept the result, which has clearly gone against its desired candidate. Analysts fear this could result in a showdown between the military and Pakistan’s electorate, which could spark considerable instability in the country. 

Does this have implications for India?

Observers had argued that if Sharif returned to power, it would pave the way to some incremental improvements in India-Pakistan relations, given his relative openness to working with India.

Khan’s return to power might be a mixed picture for New Delhi. His government had downgraded diplomatic ties with India after the 2019 abrogation of Article 370 that had granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir. 

However, Khan has also spoken publicly of plans to reach a peace deal with India during his time in office.

That apart, a showdown between Pakistan’s military and the country’s electorate could have repercussions for India, which has previously suffered the consequences of mass instability in the neighbouring country.

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