Victory Without a Winner, Country Without a Ruler: The Phenomenon of General Elections in Pakistan

Despite the fact that a week has passed since Pakistan’s general elections, it is still unknown who exactly will form the government.

Despite the fact that a week has passed since Pakistan’s general elections, it is still unknown who exactly will form the government. The latest round of political instability, triggered by the motion of no confidence against the then Prime Minister Imran Khan in April 2022 and then accelerated by his recent imprisonment, seemed to be resolved within the framework of the current electoral process. However, the country now finds itself in an even more ambiguous and unique situation.

Currently, the situation is the following: independent candidates associated with Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI) gained a quantitative majority at the federal level. Some of them have already managed to make the transition to opponent parties (for example, Waseem Qadir joined the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz faction, PML-N), therefore, 92 seats in the National Assembly remained for the PTI; the PML-N gained second place with 79 seats, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which won 54 seats, earned third place. Obvious consequences of such a close race included vote-rigging accusations, pressure on candidates, etc. Moreover, emerging doubts over whether votes were counted correctly by both PTI candidates and candidates from other parties could lead to a situation where all parties criticize the overall transparency of the voting process.

Of course, the key problem after receiving such interim results is the question how to form a new government. On Tuesday evening, it was reported that the PML-N would form the government by creating a very weak coalition with the PPP. Shehbaz Sharif, who already served as Prime Minister and also has close ties to the military, is the only candidate for this position, while PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari will become President. A coalition between Pakistan’s two oldest clan-based parties would potentially weaken their influence in the medium to long term, as the electorate could accuse them of violating democratic processes, which would consequently reduce their chances of winning future elections. Moreover, low public approval ratings will prevent the smooth implementation of tough economic measures necessary at current inflation levels and upcoming negotiations with the IMF.

What Motivates Pakistani Voters?

Considering the three previous general elections (2008, 2013 and 2018) and their peculiarities, it is easy to agree with the opinion of a wide range of experts and politicians who conclude that the only constant in the country’s domestic politics is its changes. However, in conditions of constant change and instability, there is always a number of “mandatory” and unique realities for Pakistan, among which, first of all, is the military establishment, which largely determines both the domestic and foreign policies of the state. The logic of the electoral process is partly such that the chances of victory of a particular party are higher depending on its “cooperation” with the establishment. This has now reversed compared to 2018: if then the PTI managed to win some contested seats, in 2023 and 2024, there are obvious attempts to ensure the transfer of power to the PML-N party. Both the PML-N and the establishment, however, have faced much more resistance from Pakistani voters supporting Imran Khan and the PTI than expected.

This is where the same constant changes, primarily in political culture, that have been developing since 2008 (and even earlier) come into play. Pakistan’s political culture in the 21st century appears to be very dynamic, especially with the emergence of modern mass media and new approaches to campaigning. PTI managed to sense the moods of voters tired of dynastic politics precisely at the right time, and turned to populism accessible to the masses, which mobilized a huge number of supporters both in the 2018 elections and during the protests following the vote of no confidence. In many ways, internet campaigns by Imran Khan and his supporters, youth agitation, appeal to understandable problems, management efficiency and flexibility, as well as many other factors allowed them to overtake the developing PPP and PML-N parties, which were more conservative from this point of view. The establishment hardly expected such a rapid change in the political culture and political activity of the population. As a result, even with the decentralization of the PTI, which will be discussed below, voters continued to vote for candidates associated with it out of inertia.

Thus, Pakistani voters are primarily interested in solving their ad hoc problems—economic in the form of rising inflation or localized problems such as getting a job or health insurance—rather than the political games they have witnessed over the years. The PTI’s populist approach has partly satisfied this need and changed the political behavior of the country’s population. These changes and the people’s demand to reinvent the country’s political system, as well as boost transparency, are evidenced by high voter turnout in elections and post-election activity taking place via protests that began after the results were announced. However, the PTI faced a serious problem of intra-party conflict, which greatly influenced the behavior of its members after the results were announced.

PTI Decentralization and Fragile Coalitions

By the 2024 general elections, the PTI was deprived of two of its main populist assets—Imran Khan himself, who still remains in prison, as well as its symbol—a cricket bat, which de facto means that the party has been excluded from the elections. PTI supporters received a variety of designations on the ballot papers, which may have misled voters. In fact, the party found itself in the process of uncontrolled decentralization, supplemented by candidate defections to opposing parties.

The actual decentralization of the PTI began with the vote of no confidence against Imran Khan in 2022. Opinions were polarized within the party regarding the decision to leave the National Assembly, as well as the leader’s announcements to dissolve the Panjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies. In fact, if the decision to resign from the Assembly had not been made, over a hundred members could have continued to fight their political opponents. However, this did not happen, which brought a significant blow to the party structure. This process was followed by subsequent mass protests, organized as a last-ditch attempt to regain power, leading to mass party member resignations (who, according to some sources, where under pressure due to the violence that broke out during the demonstrations on May 9, 2023).

Despite the fact that Imran Khan managed to mobilize a huge number of people in his favor and become a “political martyr”, he made numerous tactical mistakes that led to the destruction of his party. Uncontrolled decentralization has also led to a loss of trust of potential allies and the defection of members to other political forces.

In the current conditions, the PTI will strive to fend off decentralization, but the absence of a single leader such as Imran Khan directly affects this process. However, there is a possibility that the decline of the party will continue, since the politicians who left the PTI in 2023 have already created two new (so far small) parties, Istehkam-e Pakistan and Tehreek-e-Insaf (Parliamentarians). They can score political points not only through their former affiliation with Imran Khan’s PTI, but also by being more loyal to the establishment, which could help them in the medium term.

The Coalition’s Fragile Strategic Perspective

The creation of a coalition between the PML-N, the PPP and several other small parties to form a government is primarily a tactical move to gain control of the country. Although this political force will likely be able to appoint its own Prime Minister and other senior leadership, the coalition may face more structural and political obstacles from a strategic perspective. First of all, this is due to a large pool of current problems (starting from upcoming negotiations with the IMF, to the growing level of terrorist and separatist threats in different regions of the country), decisions on which will be extremely difficult to make in the proposed format.

Most likely, the PML-N will have to constantly seek help in promoting its decisions (especially unpopular ones) from the PPP and the military. This will lead to an even greater decrease in the credibility among the population, the likely absence of solutions to many problems and, possibly, greater involvement of the army in government affairs. The agreement between the PML-N and the PPP that the latter will not perform a no-confidence motion once Nawaz’s party forms the government is adding fragility to the structure. Accordingly, the Pakistan People’s Party has additional leverage, which it can use if need be, or if there is uncertainty in the actions and decisions of the PML-N.


Today, Pakistan remains in a state of political instability. The new government, whatever its composition, will face a large number of problems, primarily economic. Given this instability, adopting decisions on reforms, especially tough ones, will be met extremely negatively by the population. In the next few years, several vectors for the development of the political situation may be expected: on the one hand, dissatisfaction with the election results and demands for changes in the political system (probably addressed to the establishment) will continue. On the other hand, the processes of forming opposition forces will begin through the PTI, which will try with all their might to compensate for the losses of recent months, as well as new political parties led by breakaway PTI politicians.

From our partner RIAC