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Pakistanis Defy Powerful Army In Elections

Volunteers for former Prime Minister Imran Khan's party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), look on as they watch election results on TV screens in Islamabad on February 8.
Volunteers for former Prime Minister Imran Khan's party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), look on as they watch election results on TV screens in Islamabad on February 8.

Pakistan’s powerful army, the ultimate kingmaker in the South Asian country, appeared to pull all the stops to prevent leading opposition figure, Imran Khan, and his Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party from winning the February 8 general elections.

Imprisoned since August, the former premier was convicted of treason, graft, and unlawful marriage in three separate trials just days before the vote.

The PTI, meanwhile, was the subject of a sweeping crackdown and blocked from holding rallies and removed from the ballot, forcing its candidates to run as independents.

But in one of the biggest election upsets in Pakistan’s 76-year history, independent candidates backed by Khan are poised to win the most seats in the country’s national assembly.

The outcome is seen as a major repudiation of the country’s military, which has an oversized role in politics in the country of some 240 million. Khan waged an unprecedented campaign against the generals after he was ousted from power in 2022, which he blamed on the army.

What happens next is unclear as the country enters uncharted territory. This is the first time a major political party has been forced to field its candidates as independents and has won the most seats in parliamentary elections in Pakistan.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), widely believed to have the blessing of the army, said he would seek to form a coalition government after his party secured the second-most seats in the vote.

But in a message from prison, Khan claimed victory. Despite being barred from the polls, the PTI has demanded that it has the right to form a government.

Imran Khan Supporters Take Shock Lead As Pakistani Election Count Continues
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The army is unlikely to retreat after the election results. Many expect the country’s most powerful institution to play a major behind-the-scenes role as political parties jockey to form a coalition government.

The PML-N has entered coalition talks with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which came third in the voting, in what the PTI sees as an attempt to prevent Khan’s loyalists from forming a government.

There are also fears that the army could strongarm independent candidates backed by Khan into switching sides.

Such scenarios are likely to enrage the considerable support base of Khan, who remains popular, especially among the youth.

Many Pakistanis are bracing for uncertainty and upheaval in the days and weeks ahead.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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