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.