Pakistan's Sham Election

How the Army Chose Imran Khan

Imran Khan at a press conference in Islamabad, July 2018. Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

Newcomers to Pakistani politics greeted the outcome of Wednesday’s general election—an apparent victory for former cricket star Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party—with optimism. They were quick to note that Pakistani authorities focused on increasing female participation, both as candidates and as voters. (Although women have had the right to vote since the country came into existence in 1947, cultural norms have often denied them the right to cast their ballots.) The Wall Street Journal gushed that Khan’s apparent victory will “break the country’s two-party system.” Others wondered whether his election will have salubrious effects on Pakistan’s shambolic economy, foreign policy, or internal security.

Those of us who have watched Pakistan for decades, however, viewed the election with a more jaundiced eye. It was marked by appalling levels of electoral violence, including an election day suicide bombing in Quetta that killed at least 31. Second, the result was predetermined by Pakistan’s powerful army, which engaged in electoral malfeasance for months leading up to the election and on election day itself. The army was hell-bent upon securing Khan’s victory and even encouraged political parties with overt ties to terrorist groups to field several hundred candidates, alongside some 1,500 candidates tied to Pakistan’s right-wing Islamist parties. These right-wing groups will help forge Khan’s electoral coalition, underwritten by Pakistan’s army and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the intelligence agency that does the army’s dirty work at home and abroad.

Predictably, this election, like virtually every previous election in Pakistan, will have few consequences for Pakistan’s behavior at home or abroad. This is because the power to alter these policies resides in the army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi, not in the parliament or prime minister’s office in Islamabad.

Newspapers the day after the election in Islamabad, July 2018. Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters


The army has directly controlled Pakistan through dictatorship for 30 years of the country’s history and indirectly controlled it for the rest. Thanks to the army’s various ruses, no democratically elected prime minister has

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