Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico

Key trends revealed by the Pakistan elections the world should look out for during 2024

Poll to Poll 2024: A year of elections around the world
Humeira Iqtidar

Professor of Politics in the Department of Political Economy at King's College London

21 February 2024

The recent elections in Pakistan have revealed two important trends says PROFESSOR HUMEIRA IQTIDAR that we should look out for as voters go to the polls around the world this year – how economic precarity impacts electoral politics and the ways social media can be used to mobilise voters and create new factions.

Elections in Pakistan delivered a surprise majority to Imran Khan’s party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and an unambiguous blow to the military’s attempts at managing politics in the country. Banned from participating as a party, most of its candidates stood as independents. With 101 out of 265 seats PTI does not have enough to form a government, although the party is currently contesting results in a further 70 seats and alleging widespread irregularities. Erstwhile bitter rivals Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) are poised to form a government. However, given economic challenges on the horizon they are approaching the task of forming a government as a poisoned chalice, with the PPP already signalling some distance from the alliance.

These elections in Pakistan portend, and reflect, two important trends for 2024. First, the impact of heightened economic precarity on electoral politics will come to the fore across the globe including the US and Europe. Second, the role of social media in mobilising new constituencies and creating new factions will be more apparent.

The challenge for PTI

Sustained by a surge of support among young voters and an innovative social media campaign reaching beyond the urban/rural divide, PTI rode on a wave of discontent and alienation from the existing political framework where the military, backed by the US, supports one of the two main parties into power in alternating cycles. PTI’s main opponent parties, PPP and PML-N, are mired in dynastic politics and corruption scandals. The frustration with rotating between two tried, tested and failed options combined with runaway inflation at 28-30% and rising economic precarity played a decisive role.

What makes these results remarkable is that the party had been banned from participating in these elections and most of its candidates stood as independents. Each independent candidate had a separate electoral symbol rather than a party symbol that PTI’s opponents could rely upon. In a country where a third of its 240 million population is illiterate, electoral symbols can make a significant difference in helping voters pick the right candidate in the solitude of the electoral booth. More critically, Imran Khan has been in jail since August 2023 on a range of charges including spying and financial misconduct, and unable to make any public appearances.

Social media’s key role

This is where social media became critical to the campaign. Tik Tok videos, WhatsApp notes as well as AI generated messages became central to the party’s mobilizational strategy. Barred from holding rallies, the party organized online mass meetings. Unable to record messages from the imprisoned leader, the party relied upon AI generated image and voice to read out Imran Khan’s addresses to the nation. Tik Tok videos made by supporters presented Imran Khan as the only political leader who had dared to resist the establishment’s heavy-handed approach to managing Pakistan’s politics and stood up to American meddling in the country’s affairs. WhatsApp messages explaining electoral symbols in each constituency to support PTI backed ‘independent’ candidates helped voters understand how to get past the limitations imposed on the party. While the military and other parties relied on tried and tested methods of intimidation, bribery and in-person vote rigging, PTI’s electronic campaigns channelled long held concerns about the directions of Pakistan’s politics and democratic decision making in an emotive and accessible manner.

The key success of this social media campaign from the PTI point of view is helping shift attention away from Imran Khan’s disastrous record in power. Helped into power by the military in 2018, Imran Khan had vowed to move away from Pakistan’s dependence on the IMF during his earlier electoral campaign. However, he racked up the highest rate of external borrowing at $52 billion within a short period of three years and eight months as Prime Minister of Pakistan. In 2019 he signed up for a $6 billion bailout by the IMF. IMF required marketization of exchange rate and public entities as well as tightened taxation measures. These were linked to dramatic increases in prices, upto 50% in some instances. Public discontent with the Khan government was high when he was removed.

Sadly, during its 3.5 years in power the PTI demonstrated no deviance from the economic policies that have led Pakistan to its current plight. The PTI also has no clear economic programme for a country on the brink of default. Many of its problems are structural and require bold decisions that neither the government in-making, nor the PTI have the capacity or appetite to undertake. Pakistan’s elections give the appearance of a major upheaval, but it is not clear if any foundational changes are forthcoming.

In this story

Humeira Iqtidar

Humeira Iqtidar

Professor of Politics

Latest news