Creating new perspectives since 2009

Pakistan’s electoral earthquake signals a new chapter with global stakes

February 19, 2024 at 6:00 pm

Officers look at the billboard with general election results at Pakistan Election Commission headquarters in Islamabad, Pakistan on February 09, 2024. [Muhammad Reza – Anadolu Agency]

This month witnessed a monumental election in Pakistan, hailed by many experts as a potential game-changer in the country’s history. Against a backdrop of significant and documented pre-poll rigging, international observers considered the election result to be predetermined, and major global news outlets reported it as so. However, in what was dubbed a ‘shocking’ victory by the Guardian, the PTI party of Imran Khan asserted a two-thirds majority based on evidence gathered from polling stations on election day. The New York Times called this completely ‘stunning’, as did the Washington Post, which also called it a ‘display of defiance’.

With a turnout that could be the largest in Pakistan’s history, hundreds of millions of voters, including a significant number of first-time voters and women, the election marks a pivotal moment in a country with a history of hybrid democracies and prolonged periods of military rule.

Despite the erosion of the old power structures, they still remain deeply entrenched

On election day, the voting process encountered disruptions due to a comprehensive shutdown of mobile phone networks. Subsequently, a delay reporting the results persisted after the polls closed as the election commission grappled with unspecified “internet issues“. Candidates from purportedly military-backed political parties secured victories in constituencies initially considered major wins for the PTI as the results unfolded. PTI supporters swiftly accused the military and the caretaker government of election rigging, flooding social media with videos highlighting irregularities at polling stations. X was promptly shut down for hours, protests were quashed, and PTI candidates faced violence, echoing similar narratives from both the 2013 and 2018 polls. Country analysts may say that this has been the norm since Pakistan’s inception.

Moreover, the representations of Pakistan by international media are also slow to change. Almost all Western media depictions of PTI supporters show the same old trope of bearded men waving their party flags around angrily. They do not show the many women and children at political rallies; they do not show the energetic and tech-savvy youngsters; they do not show the middle class candidates from disenfranchised constituencies calmly demanding that election commission officials should provide an explanation of their convoluted election maths; and they do not show the jubilant unity displayed by Sunnis and Shias as they celebrated a PTI victory in the troubled Parachinar. Unfortunately, Western media headlines are still Orientalist in nature, with a distinct undertone of infantilisation and condescending pathos. Headlines such as ‘Confusion’ prevail; things are absolutely ‘bonkers’ in Pakistan; and the country is a ‘fiasco’. Western media coverage of the Pakistani election remains, unfortunately, mostly stereotypical. Nothing that hasn’t been presented before.

OPINION: Biden’s generals in Pakistan

Nevertheless, a peculiar framing was adopted by Western mainstream media. Many articles appeared to almost relish the discomfort of the Pakistani military institution. Headlines such as “Pakistan’s voters tell the generals where to put it”; “The ‘generals’ elections’ in Pakistan that turned against the military”; and “Pakistan’s youth deliver a stinging rebuke to military elite” all tell us more about the true state of the relationship between Western states and the Pakistani military than that between Pakistani voters and Imran Khan.

Supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party gather to stage demonstration demanding that the elections be renewed following elections in Islamabad, Pakistan on February 16, 2024. [Muhammed Semih Uğurlu - Anadolu Agency]

Supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party gather to stage demonstration demanding that the elections be renewed following elections in Islamabad, Pakistan on February 16, 2024. [Muhammed Semih Uğurlu – Anadolu Agency]

The fact that news outlets tend to get their cues from the state, particularly when covering foreign elections, has been well studied, particularly the connection between Western governments and Western news outlets. The extensive and unexpectedly strongly-worded coverage of the Pakistani election in the West has been focused on the role of the military.

This friction in the coverage is surprising, given that the Pakistani military enjoys strong ties with Washington, with many of its officers receiving military training in the US for decades. Arguably, this negative reporting comes in response to the alleged support offered by the Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The nature of such reporting could also be explained by the fact that the US, the UK and the EU have called for investigations into allegations of vote rigging and have not recognised an official winner yet. With that said, the US State Department appears to be more cautious in its statement vis-a-vis the Pakistani context, describing the extensive rigging as mere irregularities. This stance departs from the strongly worded reaction concerning the rigging allegations in the recently held Bangladeshi elections. Perhaps the current US administration may not be too keen on the potential premiership of Imran Khan, given his extensive criticism of how the US pulled out of Afghanistan in 2021 and more. For him, the US “really messed up”.

This peculiarity reflects the uniqueness of the 2024 Pakistan General Election and what it may entail for the Western world. The Pakistani electorate is no longer as malleable as before, and democracy may have finally started to take root after almost 80 years. The Western world may have new power stakeholders to engage in the country, and perhaps new calculations must be made regarding regional politics. Hopefully, though, they will be more prepared next time instead of being stunned by the result.

Hamas: Israel’s refusal to recognise Palestine is a challenge to the int’l system

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.