Pakistan’s PTI faces uphill battle as rivals unite, Imran Khan in jail

It has staked a claim to form the government but has neither the numbers nor the allies.

PTI-backed candidates won 93 seats in the recent elections but were forced to contest the polls as independents [Rehan Khan/EPA]

Islamabad, Pakistan — Nearly two weeks after the general elections in Pakistan, the contours of the likely new government are becoming clearer, with traditional political rivals Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) agreeing to a power-sharing formula.

Having won 75 and 54 seats in the elections respectively, the two parties, along with their smaller allies, have more than 150 members in the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament, where 134 out of a total of 266 seats are needed to form a government.

Missing in that picture is former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), despite its candidates winning 93 seats – more than any other party – while contesting the elections as independents. The party was also denied its electoral symbol, the cricket bat, weeks before the February 8 voting.

While the PTI has staked a claim to form the next government, its approach suggests that it is prepared to sit in opposition – while raising questions about the legitimacy of the elections, where it believes its mandate was stolen – said analysts. Al Jazeera reached out to several senior PTI leaders for their views on the party’s strategy, but they were unavailable.

With its leader Khan behind bars on multiple convictions, and its election campaign hit by multiple setbacks, the party stunned many analysts with the performance of its candidates in the election.

Yet, after the results, it effectively needed to join a coalition with either of the PMLN or PPP to breach the 134 mark. But Khan, in a categorical statement from jail, said the PTI would not talk to either of the two legacy political parties. Instead, the PTI has focused its energies on accusing the country’s election commission and interim government of electoral fraud in denying its candidates wins in seats where it alleges it was wronged.

The party claims it would have won as many as 180 seats without manipulation. Last week, a senior bureaucrat resigned, confessing that he had manipulated results in 13 parliamentary seats in the city of Rawalpindi.

But by refusing to even talk to any of the other major parties after the elections, the PTI has pushed itself into a corner, said political analyst Benazir Shah. “This leaves PTI with few options and barely any allies,” she told Al Jazeera.

Analyst Ahmed Ijaz, though, said that PTI’s bitter experience with coalitions when it was in power between 2018 and 2022 might be affecting its approach.

Ijaz told Al Jazeera that since Khan lost a vote of no-confidence two years ago after coalition partners deserted the PTI, its confidence in other political parties has “weakened”.

“Additionally, the entire politics of the party is based on the opposition of the two major political parties, PMLN and PPP. If this element of opposition is removed, PTI will have no reason to exist. Apart from the narrative of opposition to these political parties and their leaders, what else does PTI have?” the Islamabad-based analyst said.

Yet, with candidates having won independently, the PTI also faces challenges in terms of legal technicalities. Since it could not contest the election as a party, the PTI risks losing its quota of reserved seats in parliament, which are allocated to political parties based on proportional representation. The only way out is for its independent candidates to join another political party.

The PTI leadership had earlier announced their decision to join a Shia religious party, Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM), which won a single seat in the election. However, on February 19, the party announced it had instructed its candidates to join the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC).

The PTI also nominated Omar Ayub Khan, the party’s general secretary, as its candidate for prime minister, and said it would strive to form a government, even though the numbers game appears stacked against it.

PTI leadership has nominated Omar Ayub Khan (right) as its candidate for prime minister in the upcoming parliamentary session. [Sohail Shahzad/EPA]
The PTI leadership nominated Omar Ayub Khan (right) as its candidate for prime minister [Sohail Shahzad/EPA]

But there’s another challenge before the PTI: according to election laws, a party needs to submit a list of nominees for reserved seats before the elections, which the SIC did not do. So it is unclear, say some legal experts, whether the SIC – even with the 93 PTI-backed independents joining it – can claim any of the reserved seats.

Legal experts also say that if any political party was allocated an election symbol for the latest polls, even if it failed to win a seat, independents are free to join that party and seek reserve seats.

However, according to election laws, a party must submit a list of nominees for reserved seats, which the SIC had not done.

“The controversy that arises here is the SIC never submitted any nomination list for reserved seats to the ECP, and law does not say anything about such a situation,” Akram Khurram, a lawyer who specialises in election laws, told Al Jazeera, referring to the Election Commission of Pakistan.

However, Khurram explained, the spirit of the law should hold precedence, as any party which has clearly won so many seats, “should be deserving of its rightful share of reserved seats”.

“My point of view is that the intention of the legislation is very clear about giving reserved seats quota to a party according to seats it won. It should not matter if it submitted a list of nominations or not. We must look at the intention and the spirit of the law,” he said.

Niloufer Siddiqui, author of the book Under the Gun: Political Parties and Violence in Pakistan, said that the PTI, by joining hands with small parties like the SIC, appears to be “covering its bases”.

“It continues to make a claim to having won the election overwhelmingly, and thereby maintains its rhetoric that the people’s mandate was stolen on February 8,” she told Al Jazeera. “It also does not want to dilute its ideological opposition to the status quo by being seen as entering an alliance with the PPP but is strategically allying with smaller parties to receive reserved seats in the parliament.”

However, Siddiqui, who is also an assistant professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York, added that with Khan in jail and the party’s “weak internal structure”, the road ahead looks bumpy.

“While PTI could be more effective as an opposition force than a governing force, given that access to Imran Khan is limited and the party’s internal organisational structure weak, it is not surprising that this objectively messy and complicated scenario is resulting in confusing policies,” she added.

Ijaz, the analyst, also added that due to Khan’s absence and a crackdown on the party’s political leadership, the PTI is struggling to retain unity within its internal affairs and prevent “divisions” within ranks.

“Due to the earlier crackdown, the party now consist of more lawyers than politicians. They bring less politicking and more aggression, which creates a difference in thinking and approach,” he said.

With the parliament session for the newly elected members expected to be called on February 29, the PTI needs to get real, said Shah.

“PTI has only one good option, to sit in the opposition for the tenure of this government. If they choose to do so, one hopes they understand that this role involves questioning the government, holding it accountable and raising matters of public importance,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera