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
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR