Pakistan’s Election Stitch-Up Exposed Its Ruling Bloc

Despite heavy repression, candidates backed by Imran Khan’s party were performing strongly in Pakistan’s election until the authorities started tampering with the results. The country’s ruling bloc is now devoid of popular legitimacy or a coherent project.

A man watches Pakistan’s newly sworn-in prime minister Shehbaz Sharif on a television in Karachi on March 4, 2024. (Rizwan Tabassum / AFP via Getty Images)

The general elections held in Pakistan on February 8 herald a decisive shift in the terrain of mainstream politics. Candidates backed by Imran Khan’s effectively banned Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party were on course for a large plurality, if not a majority, in the new parliament before being cut down to size.

The authorities had suppressed and hounded PTI-supported candidates throughout the election campaign, with military-judicial manipulations depriving them of a party platform. The Pakistani judiciary locked up Khan himself with targeted cases of financial and moral corruption that ranged from the plausible to the ridiculous.

On polling day, mobile and internet services were shut down in a bid to suppress voter turnout. However, the electorate, especially young people and women in core urban areas, came out in droves to vote for PTI-backed independents.

These candidates were on course for victory in or close to a majority of the 266 directly elected seats before vote counting was slowed down and then stopped in many areas. Intelligence officers intervened in favor of candidates from the parties that currently have the support of Pakistan’s military establishment, such as the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) in Punjab and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi.


The brazen intervention resulted in some scarcely believable results. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was handed victory in a Lahore constituency, where the final tally of votes exceeded the number of actual votes cast. The MQM, which has been in secular decline for over a decade, miraculously secured the majority of seats in its former stronghold of Karachi.

In Balochistan province, military-backed candidates, some of whom were unheard of in their own areas while others were all too familiar for their criminal reputations, secured victories over nationalist parties. In former “tribal areas,” a barely known candidate for a religious party defeated the former assembly member and popular antiwar campaigner Mohsin Dawar. Dawar and his supporters were seriously injured by gunfire outside a polling office.

A hung parliament emerged, with PTI-backed independents gaining a plurality of seats but lacking a majority or an official party platform. After dithering over whether to take power in the current turmoil, the established PMLN and Pakistan People’s Party came together (with military cajolement) to form a “compromise” coalition government aiming to carry out what are called economic reforms.

Shehbaz Sharif, younger brother of Nawaz, became prime minister for the second time, while his niece Maryam Nawaz has taken up the position of chief minister in the largest province of Punjab. They will head executives dominated by a mélange of has-beens — relatives, loyalists, and elite brokers from the PMLN and other mainstream parties.

A New Conjuncture

The most prominent feature of Pakistan’s new political terrain is an electorate increasingly inclined to voting along party lines instead of supporting influential candidates who act as intermediaries with the state to deliver limited public services. This shift is an index of wider social, economic, and ideological changes. In combination with the multilevel crisis facing the ruling bloc, these developments will serve to structure the political terrain in the short and medium term around the nodes of Khan and the military.

The last time Pakistan faced a multifaceted crisis of such depth was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This interregnum initially saw the ascension of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on an ambiguous left-nationalist program. Bhutto’s military-judicial assassination in 1979 by the military regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq subsequently served to organize mainstream politics along Bhutto vs anti-Bhutto lines for the next three to four decades.

Today, a similar crisis confronts the Pakistani ruling bloc, but this time amid a very different confluence of domestic and international forces. With the long decline of the country’s left and the deepening of neoliberal commodification, it is the figure of Imran Khan that has served as a nucleus for multiple forms of alienation.

This coming together of diverse processes lends itself to the central role of Khan in Pakistan’s current situation and the ambiguous potential of his right-wing populism. Without Khan, the new parliament and government will have little legitimacy.

The machinations of 2024 are in line with tendencies that matured in 2017–18, when a previous round of military-manipulated elections brought Khan to power. Khan’s personality and government from 2018 to 2022 served to temporarily absorb social discontent and perpetuate an otherwise moribund ruling bloc.

But Khan, who offered the last semblance of popular support for the military-centered ruling bloc, fell out with the latter in 2022. Consequently, the recent elections saw military interference reach qualitatively new heights — this time to keep Khan out of power.

On election night, there was much consternation and humor on internet platforms when the vote-counting results on electronic media stopped updating. One Urdu columnist caustically declared: “You are not alone; the Election Commission is also waiting for results,” obviously meaning “from the military.”

If the 2018 elections served as a dress rehearsal, in 2024, any sartorial pretensions have been dropped completely. The emperor stands well and truly naked.

A Bankrupt Government

The coalition now in power, representing a who’s who of Pakistan’s ancien régime, is the most unpopular government to have taken office since the last open military government ended in 2007–08. Bereft of ideas and social capacity, its estrangement from the people is total, and so too is its reliance on the military as praetorian guard.

It will soon enter another International Monetary Fund (IMF) program to the tune of $6 billion, while Pakistan’s foreign debt servicing requirements double to reach $25 billion per year. A renewed round of austerity and dispossession will follow, with attempts to further roll back on the limited federal devolution of power so as to increase the fiscal space for the ruling bloc. Its promises of reform and renewal are bound to come to naught.

Its best bet for self-preservation would be another imperial war in the region, which would turn on the taps of US largesse. This is unlikely in the short term due to Washington’s preoccupation with China and Russia. However, with Israel’s colonial depravities in Palestine escalating the risk of a regional confrontation, we might yet see local agents of US imperialism like the Pakistani military receive a call for their services.

The ruling bloc is engaged in a desperate search for renewed imperial patronage on investment-focused terms. A Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC), led by the army chief, has been functioning as a shadow government and bureaucracy for the past year. Its aim is to attract close to $60 billion of investment over the next five years, mainly from Gulf countries, but this is wishful thinking.

Even if such foreign investment does materialize, the social coalitions and capacity for export-oriented growth are simply not present. With a colonial-derived bureaucratic structure and a capitalist class entrenched in unproductive sectors, Pakistan’s social formation offers a poor basis for integration into the world economy on standard neoliberal terms, let alone anything more progressive.

To break this stasis, it would be necessary to coerce not only the popular classes but also sections of the elite. There is no organized social force besides the military that could carry out such a program — that is, if the military itself is even capable of doing so.

The lack of capacity is compounded by a crippling lack of imagination in elite circles. There is much talk among legislators and intellectuals linked to the ruling bloc and the IMF about a new “Charter of Economy” for Pakistan. There are even suggestions of working toward “haircuts” and restructuring of the crippling foreign debt.

However, there is no recognition of the international situation or the unequal world system into which these ideologists want Pakistan to integrate. For every dollar of foreign investment, Pakistan on average loses more than double that amount through profit shifting and repatriation by multinational corporations. Moreover, under conditions of global capitalist stagnation and increasing economic protectionism even in core countries, the advocacy of “export-oriented growth” and an “East Asian path” for economic development is wishful thinking.

Between 1988 and 2022, Pakistan took out almost $203 billion in foreign debt from private, multilateral, and bilateral lenders. In the same period, it has paid out almost $153 billion in debt servicing, yet it still owes nearly $130 billion thanks to the unequal structure of international trade and the terms of debt repayment. The debt, as Fidel Castro once put it, is simply unpayable. It needs to be canceled.

Bourgeois ideologues lack the necessary vision for a program of internally focused development. Such a program would require democratization of land and other productive factors in both urban and rural areas, labor-absorbing forms of industrial and agricultural development, and the public direction of finance and investment. It will also have to seriously consider the prospect of a managed default on Pakistan’s foreign debt.

The PTI’s Contradictions

We can find the same dearth of social capacity and the imagination needed to resolve the crisis on the side of the popular opposition. Khan has retained his core upper- and middle-class support base while expanding his support among the popular classes. However, the PTI’s mode of organization is inadequate for the tasks that need to be accomplished.

The PTI is not a well-structured mass party, and it engages with the popular classes through social media rather than an organized membership base. Online platforms and the ephemeral forms of engagement they foster are useful for one-off actions like voting in an election or participating in a protest. However, they do not lend themselves to a sustained attack on entrenched power structures, which would require institutions and movements with staying power and an alternative program.

The PTI’s approach to politics is centered on the personality of Khan himself, and representatives of Pakistan’s elites and its middle classes are well organized inside the party structure. PTI-backed candidates in the recent elections were mostly drawn from the ranks of middle-class professionals such as lawyers and doctors, along with figures from the local business and landed elites.

In Khan’s absence, the PTI’s current chairman is a lawyer. Its general secretary, Omar Ayub Khan, is a grandson of Pakistan’s first military dictator who inherited an industrial and insurance conglomerate. The PTI chief minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Ali Amin Gandapur, is the son of a former army major who served as a minister in General Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship. Significantly, the PTI-backed independents in Parliament recently merged with a right-wing religious party, the Sunni Unity Council, to try and secure a share of indirectly elected seats for women and minorities.

The most organized elements within the PTI thus represent an alliance of Pakistan’s newly emergent middle classes with remnants of the ancien régime that were previously linked to the military. The fact that sections of the elite are sticking with the party in spite of its falling out with the military leadership indicates how the political terrain is now structured around Khan’s personality.

Fratricidal bleeding within the ancien régime has fused with mass frustrations from below. However, the PTI has attempted to take on the state and ruling bloc without organizing Pakistan’s subaltern groups. This is a recipe for aborted hegemony and chaos.

Paradox and Chaos

In this situation of discontent and deepening chaos, there is crucial work for a left-wing political force to carry out. Khan’s mediatized celebrity and his refusal to capitulate in the face of the current military leadership has turned him into a focus of popular resistance. Large sections of the popular masses have become unmoored from their traditional links with the military. In the course of supporting Khan and suffering repression as a result, many of them are developing a critique of the militarized ruling bloc.

Khan’s popularity demonstrates the need for a true program of national sovereignty that can work through Pakistan’s uneven, multinational society. It is here that an energetic left could forge genuine bases of support. Independent organization of the popular classes and an audacious economic program of anti-imperialist delinking are crucial.

The PTI’s personality-based approach and right-wing politics offer incorrect answers to real problems. In these twilight days of the Pakistani ruling bloc, we are faced with a series of tragicomic paradoxes: narcissistic celebrities are elevated, by dint of circumstances and stubbornness, to the status of heroes, while spent forces of the ancien régime pose as heralds of renewal in government. There is cowardice camouflaged as compromise and chaos under the cover of stalemate. It is an interregnum that will not last long.