ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Four days after a shocking election result rattled Pakistan’s establishment, all eyes are on the powerful generals that have long been seen as the ultimate arbiters of politics in this country.

Their grip, a constant in this country since independence in 1947, suddenly appears in doubt according to supporters of jailed ex-premier Imran Khan. Candidates backed by the former leader gained more seats in a general election last week than any other political bloc, posing a remarkable challenge to the establishment that appeared determined to suppress them.

Khan’s party remains unlikely to be able to form a government because its candidates fell short of an absolute majority and other parties are unlikely to ally with it. They also all ran as independents and will be at a disadvantage in the complicated process of seat allocation that is expected to favor three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party.

Pakistan stunned as ex-premier Khan’s party overperforms in election

But the widespread perception among many Pakistanis that Khan’s party, Movement for Justice (known as Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI), is the real winner of last Thursday’s election that could have deep implications for the delicate balance between Pakistan’s military and the country’s civilian leaders.

For many Khan supporters, their vote was as much about sending an anti-establishment message as it was about supporting the jailed former premier. “It is now evident that there is much anger against the establishment’s open and constant interference in civilian matters — interference which has only grown over the years because there has been no firm political consensus against it,” Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper wrote in a post-election editorial.

After Khan ran afoul of the military two years ago, Pakistani officials all but dismantled his party. Many of its leaders were arrested — including Khan, who has been convicted in three separate cases so far — and the party’s offices were raided the week of the election.

The key question now is how the establishment will respond to their unprecedented failure to politically sideline the party: By further cracking down on Khan and his allies, or by trying to reconcile with the ex-premier they once backed?

Pakistan’s military is no stranger to challenges from civilian leaders and the public, however. It has weathered serious political storms in the past and reemerged more emboldened and with a seemingly even tighter grip on politics.

“Some political leaders will always be willing to stand with the establishment and enjoy power,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political analyst. “This election result is a serious setback for the establishment, but ultimately it will prevail, as it has done in the past.”

Pakistan’s establishment, however, could also be underestimating the growing cynicism and anger in crisis-ridden middle-class neighborhoods, which tend to be bastions of support for Khan, a nationalist politician advocating for a European-style welfare state based on Islamic values.

Even though Khan did not deliver on many of his core promises, as even some of his supporters acknowledge, the former prime minister’s appeal could grow further here if the next government excludes Khan’s allies and fails to boost economic growth.

“A weak coalition government is not good news for Pakistan’s economy, which is still in the ICU,” said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States.

To many of Khan’s supporters, last week’s election is as much reason for resignation as it is for hope.

“We’re seeing a revolution,” said Shakir, 29, who did not want to provide his last name because he works for a government department. But he cautioned that if Khan’s party does not come to power in the wake of this vote, fury may ultimately give way to despair and apathy. “Then nobody will come out and vote in the next election.”

Rarely have anti-establishment attitudes been so mainstream and been voiced so publicly than in the days since the vote. Objections to the voting process were raised across the political spectrum, and one candidate from a smaller, traditionally military-aligned party even objected to his own election victory, saying that he was unfairly handed a provincial assembly seat that should have gone to his PTI-backed opponent.

Standing next to a shopping mall in Islamabad, Kashaf Mumtaz, a 26-year-old marketing freelancer, and 23-year-old medical student Shehzadi Najaf said it was clear to them that Khan’s party would not be allowed to return to power anytime soon.

But they still came out to vote for his candidates anyway. “We wanted to make it difficult” for the establishment, Najaf said.

Both complained that the country’s military-dominated political system has neglected Pakistan’s younger generations of voters, continuing to elevate politicians such as Sharif, 74, who ran on a pro-business platform that has largely remained the same over the past three decades.

Mumtaz and Najaf pointed to the lengthy delays in vote counting as another symptom of the country’s political flaws. As PTI-backed candidates appeared to take a strong lead early Thursday night in unofficial polls published by media outlets, counting suddenly appeared to slow, prompting allegations of vote rigging and questions from international observers that remain largely unaddressed. It took three days for the final provisional count to be announced.

“Had the military stepped back and not intervened when it became clear that PTI-sponsored independents were doing well, I think that would have been a big boost for the army” in the eyes of the Pakistani population, said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center.

“But the perception among many in Pakistan is that the army suffered a big blow,” he said.


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