The elections in Pakistan: After the street parties, will it be politics as usual?

The general election in Pakistan saw the largest voter turnout since the 1970s. But what of the accusations of vote-rigging and violence, and what does the future hold for Imran Khan?

On Saturday 11 May, Pakistan went to the polls, and the mood was jubilant. The international headlines may have described this as an election “marred by violence”, but in much of the country, it was like a giant street party. In Rawalpindi, young men with party colours tied around their head, Rambo-style, cruised around the streets, cheering, and jokingly exchanging insults with rival party supporters. People, from old to young, turned out in their droves to cast their votes, many for the first time, producing the highest voter turnout since the 1970s. In many areas, the queues at the women’s’ voting section were far longer than the men’s.

“We are facing terrorism, but this election itself is a good message,” said Muhammad Mazar, an architect originally from the Federally Administered Tribal Area (Fata), casting his vote in Islamabad. “It doesn’t matter who wins as long as it is a strong government. This election itself is our success.”

It was the first time in Pakistan’s history that one civilian government has peacefully handed over to another through the ballot box. However, despite the hopes of many, this was certainly not a victory for new politics.

At the time of writing, the votes are still being counted, but it is clear that Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) has won. His majority is even better than expected. He might have the 137 seats required for an outright majority, and if he does not, will be able to make up the numbers by getting a few independent candidates on side. He will not have to appeal to any rival parties for a coalition.

The “tsunami” of voters sweeping out the old politics, which Imran Khan had promised, did not materialise. This will be disappointing for the many supporters of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). Many of those out on the streets at election camps and polling stations on Saturday were voting for the first time because they has been mobilised by Khan’s youth-focused, highly charged movement.

“I’ve never voted before because I didn’t think politics was for people like me,” 33 year old Zahid told me at Imran Khan’s constituency in Rawalpindi. “But this time I’ve taken my whole family to the polling stations. We support PTI because we want a change.”

So why didn’t Khan win? He has alleged vote-rigging. Undoubtedly, there were some instances of it, but not enough to have cost him victory. Perhaps the key point is that the old patronage networks that traditionally govern politics in Pakistan are incredibly difficult to break. Vast swathes of the country are made up of rural constituencies, where people vote according to what their local landlord tells them to do. Another thing to remember is that political dynasties have huge resonance in the sub-continent. Sharif may have been accused of corruption in both of his last terms, but at least he is not an unknown quantity. “He is a mature person,” PML-N supporter Fahad told me at an election camp in Islamabad. “The PTI has no policies. Imran Khan talks about change but he doesn’t really want it. The PML-N actually has policies for Pakistan.”

Certainly, Sharif inherits many problems. Since declaring victory, he has said that Pakistan is a “mess”, and that a “huge challenge” lies ahead. He’s not wrong. The economy is floundering, and terrorism remains a major problem. Sharif has said he has a 100 day plan to jumpstart the economy. The details haven’t been announced, but judging from past example, it’s likely to involve deregulation and privatisation. On terrorism, Sharif, a religious conservative, has said he favours negotiations with the Taliban. This will be a hard sell to Pakistan’s powerful army, which has lost many men in the fight against militants, and has said that it will not negotiate unless the Taliban lays down its arms. It will also be interesting to see how Sharif manages the extremist elements in southern Punjab with whom he formerly had some political ties.

The last few weeks have seen mad enthusiasm for Khan sweeping across Pakistan. Shirts with his face in Warhol-style prints have become popular, while the green and red PTI flag has been visible on houses and cars in all major cities. But although he did not become prime minister this time, the election certainly heralded his – and his party’s – arrival as a major political force. The PTI has never held more than one seat before; now it looks set to gain more than 30, and it will be one of the main opposition voices. Several weeks before the election, senior PTI workers already had their eyes on the next election: it is easier to go from opposition to leadership than from nothing to the top spot. Khan’s party looks set to win enough seats in the north-western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to form the provincial government there. This will be a baptism of fire for a party that has never known power. It is a region beset by militancy, and will fully test Khan’s pledge to negotiate with the Taliban and put an end to US drone strikes.

For the cynics, this historic election marked only the continuation of the power swap between the two political dynasties – the Bhuttos and the Sharifs – that has dominated Pakistan’s parliamentary politics for decades. But the importance of the election itself cannot be underestimated. Half of the carnival atmosphere on Saturday came purely from the thrill of being able to vote out one government and vote in another; something taken for granted in the west. Regardless of who was the victor, or even what they do in power, there remains huge optimism that this election has ultimately furthered the development of democracy, and will end up strengthening civilian institutions overall.

Click here to read more from Samira Shackle on the run up to the general election and the place of minority communities in Pakistan

Activists carry posters and flags as they drive through Rawalpindi on 11 May. Photograph: Getty Images.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.