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Sunday, April 14, 2024

An electoral history of Pakistan

Every electoral sabotage was jointly planned by certain political parties and the establishment. Hence the farce continues. The biggest challenge therefore is to expose and punish culprits through research and vote, if we want to avoid another tragedy. Subjugating brut power is therefore the need of the hour.

‘History repeats itself, first as a farce, second as a tragedy.’ The ruling elites of Pakistan proved every word of Karl Marx true – not once but repeatedly. In 1954 a farce of the highest order was committed perhaps for the first time, which turned into a bloody tragedy by 1971 and since then instead of learning lessons farcical behavior of rulers kept the people and the nation in perpetual crisis. Consequently, the country could not progress. But naively we embraced every farce as a new beginning. For instance, when Ayub Khan was overthrown in the wake of 1968 students’ movement, like the rest of the country, the people of my mohalla in Multan also celebrated the change. I could not forget the enthusiasm that I had experienced when General Yahya Khan announced the date for a general election – the first countrywide general election based on adult franchises were to be held soon.

Though social media was nonexistent then, every tharra, chai khana and barber shop in our neighborhood turned into a debating chamber. Like most of college students, I actively participated in the anti-Ayub Khan movement and faced police brutality, which made me an activist. I was just 16 years old. We would spend more time on political activities than on studies. We would not hesitate to sacrifice our pocket money to take part in electioneering. Simply I thought the only way to fulfill our hope for a prosperous and equal society was through peaceful struggle and democratic election. It proved to be a farce. Yet, I had and still has no regrets. However, it is imperative to inform today’s youth to learn about the farcical games of our ruling elites.

Read more: PM Shehbaz stresses parliament’s role in decision on elections

Based on my long experience and study of politics and elections, I have no hesitation to say this – every electoral exercise was a farce in my country. Here is the empirical evidence.

To test the authenticity of the prevalent perception that the establishment never allowed political parties to grow beyond a certain level of popularity and to capture enough majority in assemblies, I analyzed the results of 14 elections held since 1954. As votes are likely to be the best barometer to test the popularity of parties, which are transformed into seats in the assembly, the gap between the winner and runner-up is taken as Popularity Gap (PG). My analysis seems to validate the public perception. Moreover, it also reveals that whenever PG between the compliant political leader/s and undesirable party expanded to more than 30%, a conspiracy was hatched to sabotage the transfer of power or the election was denied.

Between 1954 and 1977, four general elections were held

On average the PG was as high as 54.2%. It was 72.5% in seats, while 36% in votes. In 1954 United Front government was dismissed soon after it formed the government. In 1971 instead of bowing down to the wishes of voters, our establishment with the support of political allies launched a military operation. In 1977 once again a nine-party alliance refused to accept the election results and launched violent agitation, which ended in the military takeover. For 11 years the people were punished for voting an unwanted party.

Between 1988 and 1993, three general elections were held. As PG remained at 16%, hence it was manageable, and elections were held within 90 days. As the PG increases to 50.2% in 1997, and Nawaz Sharif becomes unmanageable, he was dismissed through a military coup, which lasted for a decade. The PG also remained very low (17.5%) during 2002 and 2018 period, so elections were held according to the law. Though Sharif was dismissed from premiership, his party was allowed to complete its tenure. But PTI was deprived of that option as it opted to resist.

See Table below for details

Table showing gaps between winner and runner-up parties in obtained votes and seats won

 Election year Gap in votes Gap in seats Winner Runner up
1954 67.0% 70.0% United Front Muslim League
1970 20.0% 66.0% Awami League Peoples’ Party
1971 33.0% 75.0% Peoples’ Party JI, JUI, JUP etc.
1977 24.0% 79.0% Peoples’ Party Pakistan National Alliance
1988 8.3% 26.0% Peoples’ Party Islami Jamhori Ittihad
1990 3.1% 40.9% IJI PPP
1993 8.0% 8.0% PPP IJI
1997 24.1% 76.4% PMLN PPP
2002 7.7% 16.4% PMLQ PPP
2008 0.3% 11.1% PPP PMLN
2013 23.9% 45.6% PMLN PPP
2018 10.8% 23.3% PTI PMLN
Punjab by polls July 2022 13.0% 80.0% PTI PDM + PPP


To fully understand the malaise, we must examine its roots. After a prolonged delay, in March 1954, a first general election was held in the then East Pakistan (Bangladesh). The opposition United Front led by some leading politicians of the Pakistan movement like Fazlul Huq, H. S. Suhrawardy and Bhashani defeated the Muslim League by capturing 223 (73%) of 309 seats of the East Pakistan assembly. Muslim League could win only nine (3%) seats. The people of East Pakistan conveyed a categorical message to the rulers. It was not only ignored, after a few weeks the people’s mandate was thrown in the Bay of Bengal. The government was dismissed by Governor General. But it proved to be the beginning of the end of Jinnah’s Pakistan.

Ghulam Muhammad though is cursed in almost every essay and speech delivered on the political history of the country; ruling elites continued walking on his path steadfastly.

Read more: Annoyed SC orders State Bank to release funds for elections

Consider this also. After the liberation of Bangladesh, some political scientists thought that the establishment had learned a lesson. They were wrong. Since then, farce turned into tragedy repeatedly. Military generals under the command of General Zia didn’t hesitate for a moment to hang the most popular leader of the country. This was perhaps the first execution of any king or PM in the Sub-continent. Though he had committed blunders, his only ‘crime’ was that his popularity was too large to fill even by rigging. For instance, in the 1970 elections, his party had won 75% of the seats, and 33% more votes. In the general election 1977, though the popularity gap narrowed to 24%, on seats it had expanded to 79%.

Had the general election held within 90 days as General Zia had promised, Bhutto would have returned to power with more than two-thirds majority. So, the generals and their toady politicians conspired to eliminate him physically. But, like Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party too becomes more popular in the aftermath of oppression. In both cases elections were denied. The tragedy of that farce has been bleeding the country since then.

Strangely, today heirs of Bhutto have joined hands with his killers. Yesterday they were nine, today fourteen. Yesterday it was Bhutto, today it is Imran Khan, whose popularity despite all forms of oppression has peaked to an unprecedented level. In the 2018 elections PG between PTI and PMLN was just 17.5%. Consider. Despite rigging PDM could win just four seats, while PTI won 15 of 19 seats in the July by-elections for Punjab assembly. Khan too won seven of nine national assembly seats. Moreover, all opinion polls show PTI far ahead of PDM. It’s too large to manage even through rigging.

That deterred the ruling coalition and generals from holding general elections for the dissolved assemblies. No wonder, twice the elections have already been postponed despite a clear popular demand and categorical orders of the Supreme Court. So, it is being proved once again that whenever the popularity gap becomes too large to manage even by rigging, the election is either postponed for an indefinite period or power is not transferred to the largest party. Long live Ghulam Muhammad!

Read more: Why PML-N is terrified of elections

The above facts negate the much-touted perception that only the establishment has been responsible for derailing democracy. In fact, every electoral sabotage was jointly planned by certain political parties and the establishment. Hence the farce continues. The biggest challenge therefore is to expose and punish culprits through research and vote, if we want to avoid another tragedy. Subjugating brut power is therefore the need of the hour.


Sarwar Bari is the former Secretary-General of FAFEN and he heads Pattan Development Organisation. Pattan has been working with disaster-prone and marginalized communities since 1992 when super floods hit Pakistan. Since its inception, the organization has evolved a holistic disaster risk reduction approach that stands on five themes: capacity building, gender mainstreaming, social action, governance monitoring, and defending human rights and civil liberties. Research-based advocacy is being used for public policy improvement. Currently, Pattan’s partners are working in 27 districts of Pakistan.