Islamabad, Pakistan – With election results from at least 267 of Pakistan’s 272 National Assembly constituencies now in, we can begin to make some sense of what has been an historic vote in the South Asian country, seeing Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) emerging as the single largest party in parliament for the first time ever.
The PTI has broken the duopoly held by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) for decades.
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Pakistan has also been directly ruled by the military for roughly half of its 70-year history.
Here are some key takeaways from Wednesday’s vote:
1. The PTI rode a wave of support across the country
Khan’s PTI will almost certainly form the next government, even though it is just short of the 137 seats needed to take an outright majority on its own. With smaller parties and independents winning at least 45 seats, it should not be difficult for the PTI to form alliances and elect Khan as prime minister.
The PTI’s victory was built on the back of two major wins. First, it was able to wrest much of southern and northern Punjab from the outgoing PML-N, breaking the party’s vote bank in its political heartland.
Second, it was able to hold on to most of its seats in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), which has historically always voted out its incumbent party. The PTI won the most seats in KP in 2013, but holding on to them represented an historic first.
2. Was the vote free and fair?
The outgoing PML-N and other parties that underperformed, unsurprisingly, say it was not, but the Election Commission of Pakistan is standing by the results, saying any complaints should be filed with accompanying evidence.
The opposition’s complaints seem to centre on the vote counting process, with at least six political parties alleging their representatives were not allowed to witness the counting process, as mandated by law, and that the final counts were not properly documented.
FAFEN, an independent Pakistani election observer network, noted in at least 35 constituencies, the winning margin was less than the number of votes rejected by electoral officials, often a red flag for possible manipulation. The number was similar in 2013.
The EU’s observer mission in Pakistan said while there were positive changes to Pakistan’s legal framework for elections, the polls were “overshadowed by restrictions on freedom of expression and unequal campaign opportunities”.
PTI chief Khan – who himself alleged widespread rigging in 2013 – has said his party will fully cooperate with any investigations into the electoral process.
3. With MQM in disarray, megalopolis Karachi votes for change
For the last 35 years, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), an ethnic Muhajir party, has ruled Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, with an iron fist. Since late 2013, however, a paramilitary operation has targeted the party’s alleged criminal enterprises, jailing dozens of workers and leaders.
The operation finally led to the factionalisation of the party, with chief Altaf Hussain, who lives in exile in London, unable to maintain control.
As a result, 2018 saw an open fight for the city of Karachi for the first time in decades, and the results were clear: the PTI swept 14 of the city’s 21 seats, beating major MQM leaders along the way. It even managed to beat PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in his party’s historical stronghold of the Lyari neighbourhood.
4. Mixed bag for Pakistan’s far-right parties
This election was a mixed bag for Pakistan’s far-right parties, with the newly emerged Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) firmly establishing itself as the dominant hardline Barelvi Sunni Muslim party, but others failing to make an impact.
The TLP won two provincial assembly seats in Sindh province but, crucially, emerged as the third-placed party in a number of national constituencies across the country, regularly registering more than 10,000 votes, and going as high as 42,000 in some urban constituencies.
The Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat, an alleged political front for the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi armed group, and the Milli Muslim League, the alleged political front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba armed group, both fared badly at both the provincial and national levels, however.
5. The army was in control of the polling process
Pakistan’s military deployed more than 371,000 soldiers for the 2018 elections, more than it has ever done before, and the results showed.
Each of the country’s 85,000 polling stations was secured by army personnel, with civilian law enforcement and, in some cases, electoral officials, relegated to a supporting role.
Entry to the polling stations was strictly controlled, and in several instances, media workers reported being disallowed from entering – despite having proper accreditation – by military personnel.
The army says it played “no direct role” in the polling process, and it only ensured security and the sanctity of the ballot process. Opponents allege it intervened directly in vote counts.
The EU’s observer mission did not pass judgment on the issue, but did note “during counting, security personnel recorded and transmitted the results, giving the impression of a parallel tabulation”.
6. Who were the major losers from this election?
Depending on how you look at it, the PPP – a party that has ruled Pakistan on four occasions since the party’s inception in the 1970s – either failed miserably and has now been relegated to third-party status in Pakistan, or overperformed expectations by holding on to its base in Sindh and picking up a few seats in southern Punjab province and elsewhere. The jury is out on this one.
What is clear is the religious right, represented by the Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), and others largely failed at the polls, winning just 13 seats nationwide.
The MQM’s loss of its political base in Karachi is a major blow to the party, and the failure of even the breakaway Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) to win a single national seat also suggests politics may be changing in Pakistan’s largest city.
Finally, the Awami National Party (ANP), a Pashtun nationalist party in northwestern KP province, only managed to win a single seat, cementing its decline since ruling the province from 2008-13.
7. Will this election give Pakistan political stability?
So far, only the JUI-F has called for widespread protests against the results, with the PML-N still formulating a way forward. The PPP appears to have accepted the results, with reservations.
The PTI’s fairly clear mandate at the centre means the coalition-building process should be relatively straightforward, with the party also expected to lead KP’s provincial government. In Sindh, the PPP is expected to form the provincial government, while in Balochistan, the provincial government will likely be led by the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP).
The key to stability, however, will lie in who leads the provincial government in Punjab, the country’s most populous province.
The PML-N and PTI are neck and neck in the province, with 127 and 123 seats, respectively, and both are vying to form a government.
If the PML-N is successful in holding on to a province it has governed for more than a decade, it may set up a political confrontation with the PTI at the centre.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim