The Moral Meaning of Pakistan’s 2024 General Elections

The Moral Meaning of Pakistan’s 2024 General Elections

Pakistan’s 2024 election results have come as a shock. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), headed by Imran Khan and in power until April 2022, was widely expected to lose following a campaign of intimidation and harassment by the security services over the last year. Imran Khan himself has been in jail since last August. He was recently sentenced to 14 years for corruption and barred from holding office for half a decade. The PTI could not field candidates as party nominees, and its cricket bat symbol was banned. Nevertheless, PTI-affiliated candidates won the most seats in the Pakistan National Assembly in the recently concluded elections. This is the first time that the established political elites – particularly Pakistan’s powerful military as well as the judiciary, bureaucracy, and mainstream political parties – were together unable to engineer an electoral victory.

The underlying conditions that provided fertile ground for Imran Khan’s populist mobilization in 2018 have not changed. Many of his voters are animated by elite capture of political institutions and a common sense of unfairness. The establishment’s behavior encumbering the PTI in the 2024 elections only reinforced this sense.  

Imran Khan’s populist message has successfully captured the political imagination of significant portions of the electorate. Many Pakistani citizens find that the political institutions that are supposed to guarantee equality before the law and before the state instead heighten distinctions between winners and losers. In Pakistan, as in other parts of South Asia, political elites protect their privileges from popular challenge by actively picking and choosing those who benefit economically. These practices clash with the (not- unreasonable) expectations in a democracy that policy and practice should be conducted for the many rather than the few. This was true in 2018, and even more so in 2024.

This political exclusion arises from a nexus of political capture and winner-take-all economics. From the abrupt end of Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime in 1988, dynastic parties PPPP (Pakistan People’s Party-Parliamentarians) and the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) competed for power based largely on mobilizing social divisions and disbursing patronage. Market reform in the early 1990s yielded growth, but simultaneously created opportunities negotiable only by the wealthy and politically well-connected. This has led to crony capitalism and the corruption, seen as a hallmark of Pakistani politics, implicating all the key mainstream political parties. The state apparatus has enabled this crony capitalism, through feeble and selective enforcement. This cemented a common understanding that the system was rigged.

In the mid-2010s, middle-class constituencies across the polity revolted against the exclusionary practices of the political system. Imran Khan capitalized on these grievances. In mass agitations against the Nawaz Sharif government in 2014, Khan invoked cronyism and elite capture as the biggest problems dogging Pakistan’s success. The PTI symbolized resistance against the clientelist dynamics of the establishment and the duopoly between the PPP and the PML- N. In the 2018 campaign, the PTI’s slogan, “Naya (new) Pakistan,” placed the aspirations and grievances of the middle classes at the core of mobilization.

On the campaign trail, Khan emphasized the power of “old families” and the waste, fraud, and abuse of government. He also promised an end to profligate spending on patronage and a welfare state along Islamic lines, evoking the Prophet Muhammad’s ideal city of Medina. His emotive demands for respect for Islam and for the Prophet reached across a wide spectrum of the middle class.

Khan, however, could not consolidate power or reform the practices of the government, and his popularity plummeted. His government fell due to a no-confidence motion in parliament led by a coalition of establishment parties in April 2022. The incoherent coalition government that succeeded the PTI was unable to resolve Pakistan’s deep financial woes or address Pakistani society’s fundamental problems: the capture of state power and institutions by the well-connected. The efforts by the state apparatus to marginalize Imran Khan and his supporters did little to assuage the sentiment among many Pakistanis that the old political parties – the PPPP and PML(N) – reinforce the power of the elite.

In fact, the actions of the state apparatus, including the judiciary and the military, only highlighted the rigged nature of Pakistani politics. Many see Khan’s arrest on corruption charges in mid-2023, as well as subsequent charges for selling state secrets and the illegality of his marriage, as retributive. The security services’ attempts to dismantle the PTI – jailing thousands of party workers and ordinary supporters, while offering PTI leaders incentives to defect – suggests unfair treatment for followers of Khan’s political project. In these ways and others, the judiciary and security services colluded with the government to prevent the PTI from mobilizing votes. These efforts reinforced the profound feeling of political inequality that is already pervasive among the Pakistani electorate, which chimes with their everyday experiences of preferential treatment for the well-connected and abuse and neglected for the unconnected. This created an aperture for a grassroots mobilization against the existing political elite in the 2018 election, and the persistence of this sense of inequity drove many to vote for PTI-affiliated candidates in 2024.

Despite significant encumbrances, candidates affiliated with the PTI emerged triumphant, winning 97 seats to the PML-N’s 76 and the PPP’s 54, according to the Election Commission, though with the results in some constituencies being contested in the courts. The 2024 elections represent a watershed. A large number of Pakistani voters selected a party with its leader in jail, against the obvious wishes of the military and political establishment, because it carried a message of equality and justice against the degraded status quo.

Pakistan’s experience is not unique. As political power gets concentrated in the hands of a few, economic benefits flow predominantly to the well-connected, and political competition remains limited to a cartel of mainstream parties, populist messages resonate with those who are excluded and see the system as rigged. Populists promise a restitution of a moral order in which democratic political institutions will work for everyone. They narrate a story that suggests the deep compact between state and society (that the state should treat everyone equitably – in South Asia, these are reflected in struggles for independence from colonial rule) has been broken.

Imran Khan, like populist leaders from the United States to Hungary to El Salvador, exploits the roots of popular discontent against the politically powerful. His success, similar to that of other political actors, reminds us that populism is a symptom, rather than a direct cause, of democratic stagnation. In Pakistan and in many other countries, this stagnation arises from a crisis of representation: that the aspirations, grievances and values of significant groups of the electorate are not reflected in any of the mainstream political parties. Imran Khan’s populist mobilization politically activated a powerful segment of voters – many from the urban middle classes – who were not being represented. Even with serious allegations of vote-rigging, however, it is unclear whether they would constitute straightforward electoral majorities, given Pakistan’s diversity and the not-insignificant followings of the PPPP and the PML-N.

The big question remains whether Pakistan’s political system will reform enough to accommodate the aspirations and interests of these new activated voters, not by extending cronyism to their leaders, but by changing the way in which politics is conducted. 


Adnan Naseemullah,  is Reader in International Politics,  at King’s College London
Pradeep Chhibber,  is Professor of Political Science,  at the University of California, Berkeley.


They are the authors of Righteous Demagogues: Populist Politics in South Asia and Beyond, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.


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