Pakistan is in political limbo after an election result that few in the establishment predicted.

Independent candidates backed by Imran Khan‘s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) have delivered a major upset.

Many seemed to underestimate the level of discontent and desire for change in a country that’s experienced years of turbulence.

The army generals who have for decades dominated Pakistan looked far less in control now.

Their presumed candidate, Nawaz Sharif, was the first to claim victory yesterday, declaring his party the largest.

Technically, he was correct – the independents aren’t a party and don’t have a leader to run the country.

But Sharif also acknowledged he needs the support of others if he’s going to get a seat at the table and that’s certainly not guaranteed. Everyone needs each other because no one has a majority.

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As it happened: Early election results signalled an upset for Sharif

So what next? Well, days – maybe even weeks – of horse trading as Sharif and his team try to court independents and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) candidates to help form a government.

Whatever the scenario, Pakistan will now have a hung parliament. That’s not a great prospect for stability in a nation that’s been plagued by political paralysis.

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Nawaz Sharif announced his plan to form a coalition government. Pic: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
Nawaz Sharif announced his plan to form a coalition government. Pic: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

It desperately needs quick action to tackle a spiralling economy, a rising terror threat and to reassure the International Monetary Fund (IMF) it’s stable enough to plough money into. The question is who will be the defining force?

To me, the PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto Zardari could well be the kingmaker. His centrist party will need to decide if it’s the status quo of Sharif they want to get behind or the more radical agenda of the independents.

What is clear is the military has taken a hit this election. For the first time ever, they appeared to back a candidate at odds with the political winds of the rest of the country.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), speaks during an interview with Reuters in Larkana, Pakistan, January 16, 2024. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari could play a crucial role in the formation of Pakistan’s new government Pic: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

You can’t rule out a Khan release, or Bilawal Bhutto Zardari being prime minister. But whoever runs this country has got a massive challenge on their hands and their leadership might be short-lived.

There are widespread claims of election rigging and continued intimidation of returning officers at polling stations. That all contributes to a simmering tension and increasing international criticism that puts Pakistan under pressure.

But the next few days are all about backroom talks, not public protest.

Everyone is waiting to see how things shake down. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.


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