Pakistan’s general elections results have yet to be finalised but a few distinct and significant themes are evident. One message resounds: Pakistanis, especially the younger population, oppose the coercive methods of the state apparatus and refuse to adhere to the predetermined narrative of the military leadership dictating the country’s trajectory.

The defeat of the establishment-backed Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz at the hands of relatively obscure and youthful candidates of former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf lays a promising foundation for a more democratic path forward.

A coalition between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party is in the offing, consolidating power in Islamabad and three provinces: Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has a clear victory in the fourth province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The coalition government being formed with the support of the country’s powerful “militablishment” – the army’s high command and intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence – may lack public support and moral legitimacy. This will mean it is unlikely to survive for long.

A Pakistan Peoples Party voter, a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf voter and a non-voter in Karachi. Credit: Beena Sarwar via Sapan News.

Overcoming vendetta

Multiple court cases against Khan and his family reek of political vendetta and efforts to preserve the military’s dominance in the political realm.

In sharp contrast to the last elections in 2018, when Khan was the establishment favourite, Pakistan’s television news channels sidelined coverage of Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, with even the mention of his name restricted in broadcast reports and newspapers.

Two days before the elections, major newspapers featured paid, front-page content referring to Nawaz Sharif as the prime minister. In response, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insa upped its already strong social media campaign.

Despite the increase in the absolute number of voters, with a record addition of 22.6 million registered between the two elections, the turnout rate decreased from 52.1% in 2018 to 47.6% in 2024. While as many as 66% of 18 to 25 year olds are registered voters, their turnout is lower than the average.

Still, the younger generation exhibits a fearless disdain for Pakistan’s entrenched elite, including the military, judiciary and political allies. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s fan base in particular uses social media to express themselves.

Government authorities persistently disrupted internet services to counter the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s online fundraising campaigns and virtual meetings.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s electoral success against all odds has emboldened the party leadership and workers. Many see it as an indication of the electorate’s opposition to the army’s extra-constitutional powers and interference in politics.

This is likely to spur aggressive political action by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf voters, sympathisers and its leadership in the days ahead, knowing that the coalition government is unlikely to be able to bring about an economic turnaround or address the grievances of people.

The Pakistan army’s policies lack consistency and depth, pivoting abruptly in response to changing circumstances, including shifts in military leadership. The impending retirement of the current military leadership over the next two years will lead to new dynamics, with emerging figures forging their own paths. Over time, the army may realise that the support for Khan, or any politician for that matter, cannot be extinguished through coercive measures.

A portrait of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan is seen amid flags of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the religious and political party Jamat-e-Islami as supporters attend a joint protest demanding free and fair results of the elections, outside the election commission of Pakistan in Karachi on February 10, 2024. Credit: Reuters.

The tenuous alliance between the Pakistan Muslim League and the army, with Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister, is likely to totter on the brink of collapse, as has happened before with “selected” candidates. Khan himself came to power with significant help from the military in 2018, but a few years later, the alliance fell apart. In April 2022, Khan was removed as prime minister through parliament.

A power struggle looms, given the military’s historical interference in Pakistan’s politics. The establishment remains steadfast in its quest to maintain supremacy over the country’s decision-making processes.

The chief of army staff is one of two persons listed on the leadership panel of a body set up in June 2023 under the caretaker administration to facilitate investments to Pakistan– the Special Investment Facilitation Council. The other is the prime minister.

The government that leads Pakistan will have its work cut out to maintain longevity, facing both a legitimacy crisis and staunch opposition from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Eventually, Pakistan may be compelled to hold a midterm election, where Khan stands a strong chance of emerging victorious.

In the days ahead, despite his incarceration – and perhaps even because of it – Khan is likely to garner more popularity and influence. Many will overlook his political missteps, remembering him instead as an oppressed and courageous leader who confronted the military head-on.

Despite the relentless efforts by the military to discredit him, Khan stands apart from his main rival, Nawaz Sharif, as he neither fled the country nor negotiated an exile deal.

A Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf polling camp in a Pakistan Peoples Party stronghold Lyari, Karachi. Credit: Beena Sarwar via Sapan News.

Geographical challenges

Given Pakistan’s security challenges, the Kashmir dispute and a fragile border with Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban, it is important for a strong army and a professional intelligence agency to be subordinate to the constitution and elected government.

The country requires an intelligence apparatus focused on security rather than one that meddles in politics or surveils the private conversations of politicians, judges and ordinary citizens.

It is time to curb the unchecked and ultra-constitutional powers of the army chief, subject the intelligence agencies to public scrutiny and accountability, and limit their influence over domestic and foreign policy. Khan has the potential to bring about such changes if he manages to return to power and secure a majority in the next general elections.

The election results are a clear rebuke to the military leadership’s policies, reflecting a rejection of army-backed politics rather than just the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif. The time has come for these forces to voluntarily retreat, step back from policymaking and focus on their essential assignment of security.

Ershad Mahmud is a researcher focusing on Pakistan’s politics, Kashmir, human rights and peacebuilding. His handle on X is @ErshadMahmud and his email ID is

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.