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Pakistan, Coalition Republics, and the Issue of the Modern Vote

Updated: Mar 31

Zahra Shafiq


2024 brings a looming change in terms of democratic process. Between the just-passed Pakistani parliamentary elections in February and the upcoming United States presidential election in November, it is obvious that the trajectory of representative voting systems is rapidly shifting.

This shift demonstrates it is inaccurate to continue to define all elected representative governments as democracies or republics. While once accurate these definitions are no longer precise. Many democracies outside of North America are based on multiparty systems; these elected bodies are much more diversely opinionated and, as a result, gain majorities through coalitions rather than from a citizen majority vote. Depending on the balance of parties that make up the legislature, these coalitions form and dissolve to achieve primary shared goals. Pakistan’s current electoral climate is a prime example of this socio-political behavior.

Pakistan is defined by the U.S. Department of State as a federal parliamentary republic, where elected officials win seats in the country’s parliament representing their respective political parties. Since it is a multiparty system, making domestic policy concerns a majority party rule to pass or deny legislation.

Despite the existence of this legislature, the USDoS asserts that the country is not led by the politicians in parliament and instead is headed by the resident military powers, the Pakistan Armed Forces (PAF). This tracks well historically: the past (near) century has been replete with coups and assassination attempts on Pakistan’s head political figure, the Prime Minister. Since partition and independence in 1947, there have been eight attempts on the Pakistani PM, successful or not (figure ignoring violence against other political figures and extended family members). In conjunction with this, the PM has never held office for the full five-year term enumerated in the Pakistani Constitution.

The election held earlier this February resulted in a new parliamentary majority closely aligned with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. This is Imran Khan’s — the former PM from August 2018 to October 2022 — party, absolutely (meaning Khan is the lifeblood of the PTI, “the entire party supports hinges on Mr. Khan’s existence,” (Source: NW Global)). Khan is a celebrated ex-cricket player, who ran for office in 2018, vowing to end corruption, and is primarily backed by university educated younger voters between 18 and their mid 30’s. They make up 44.36% of the registered voters in Pakistan (Source: Firstpost).

Despite the parliamentary majority held by his party, Khan and his wife, Bushra Khan, are currently sentenced to jail by the PAF on a 14-year sentence with a “hefty” fine on allegations that they sold luxurious gifts in Dubai with money from the state treasury. This sentence includes a 10-year disqualification from holding public office. He also received a three-year sentence for this same offense last August, but the charge was suspended upon appeal. Khan continually was charged for “revealing state secrets” on another 10-year sentence a day prior (Source: Reuters). This made it uncertain whether or not Khan would take office because of his charges, and it meant Pakistan's coalition government would eventually allow another leader to assume the position.

Two parties formed a coalition to overtake the PTI’s majority. These parties are the military-backed Pakistan Muslim League supporting Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and Pakistan's People’s Party (PPP). In forming the coalition, this majority ended the extended period of political uncertainty that followed Khan’s arrest (Bushra Khan remains at her current job intact).

The PML-N wants Sharif to assume the position as the next PM despite the corruption charges he faced in 2018. Sharif was allowed leave from his trial to travel to the United Kingdom for medical treatments. He would return to Pakistan at the tail-end of 2023 despite his complicated legal history and political instability within Pakistan. This has led critics to believe he struck a deal with the military that allowed his return. The coalition, in turn, has the PPP instating Asif Ali Zardari as president of the country (the president has slightly less power than the PM as enumerated by the Pakistani Constitution) (Source: House of Commons).

The U.S. faces a similar situation. Former President Donald Trump has been indicted more times than any other American president and is still on trial. In the 2024 United States Presidential Election, Trump has the support to be the Republican candidate for office. If he is charged in any of the still outstanding cases, the country faces the possibility of navigating a marked felon as the president-elect. The American Constitution does not enumerate how to monitor this, and it would surely cause a related political standstill.

Coalition governments like that of Pakistan and Israel are theoretically formed to give a voice to minority groups. This system functions like so: parties with fewer seats in the house, and therefore represent minority group values, are able to assume office under their own political agendas. These parties are also able to form alliances with like-minded officials to legislate change prioritizing their party’s interests. However, coalitions are not utopian. More often than not, separate parties are backed by the same umbrella party but have been split into idealistic groups. And when coalitions are involved, minority voices are still drowned out if they do not acquiesce some autonomy and join the majority coalition.

Voting in Pakistan is not straightforward either. Domestically, Pakistan’s government has dealt with attacks on voting stations, unconcerned voters competing with despotic opposition groups, and international pressures or influences. The political atmosphere is reported to be highly volatile. Violence from the PAF against members of the PTI and non-militarized political groups is widespread. These aggressive attempts at domination imply the country is beginning to assume a Western-like, polarized political system, contrary to the “archaic system” Pakistan is painted as having by Western news outlets. In fact, Joshua Kurlantzick writes for the Council on Foreign Relations that the younger voters in Pakistan are averse to military and political legacies. If the PAF attempts a coup, the disaffected young voting generation will likely retaliate. The accessibility of information from technological advantage would mostly likely work against the PAF’s favor as well.

However, this optimism in younger voters is not enough to prevail when potential political action carries with it a threat of death. At the beginning of February 2024, two explosions killed at least 28 Pakistanis voting in Balochistan. BBC writes, "many voters in Balochistan feel neglected by the country’s political parties, given the province has so few seats in parliament. They often feel candidates are foisted on them.” Voters are victims of the PAF’s censoring of non-militarized parties and locally recognize their lack of voice.

Most sensationally, technology also allowed Imran Khan to “give” an acceptance speech from jail after the PTI won the majority in parliament. Khan used a deepfake of his likeness and voice to rally congratulations among his party supporters. Based “on notes he passed to his lawyers from prison” (Source: the New York Times), this speech was transformed using AI into oral and visual rasterizations of Khan. It was as if Khan was gracing his supporters with a press video from behind bars. But Khan didn’t publicly enunciate anything. It was all generated.

Does this violate a fundamental ethical assumption concerning governors? Representatives are elected by a democratic or republican system with the intention of keeping legislation reflective of the people. While reassuring his supporters, Khan’s deepfake raises questions about who composes a party versus represents it. The power of Khan accepting a win from behind unfairly built bars is much more significant than the impact of Khan’s notes simply being read aloud to his supporters by someone else. Instead, his total likeness overshadows the lack of authority Imran Khan truly has in the context of Pakistan's democracy.

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