Can independents elect Pakistan’s first-ever truly independent PM? That and other questions answered

Political and legal experts weigh in on what the PTI-backed candidates could do once they make their way into Parliament.
Published February 9, 2024

Against all predictions by seasoned political pundits who frequent the circuit of Pakistan’s 24/7 television landscape, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)-backed candidates are currently leading the roster of election results as they continue to trickle in over 24 hours since polling ended at 5pm on Thursday.

While PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif, in his premature victory speech, indicated his willingness to form a coalition government, the strategy for PTI’s brigade of independent winners remains unclear.

Despite the electoral success, the PTI is still at a significant disadvantage, courtesy the ECP’s decision to relieve it of its iconic ‘bat’ symbol as well as the barrage of cases against its top-tier leadership who remain behind bars. This means that even if the candidates it is backing clinch the highest number of seats, the party may not be able to form a government as it won’t be allotted a quota of minority seats. So what options does the PTI have from here? We put some of these questions before our panel of experts. Here is what they had to say:

Have so many independent candidates ever been elected to Parliament?

According to journalist Wusatullah Khan, “there have been many more than this — during General Ziaul Haq’s time, the entire Parliament was made up of independents.”

In 1985, he explained, there were non-party based elections. No parties were allowed to participate in the elections and everybody contested in their individual capacity. “Obviously everyone had someone’s support but on paper they were all independent,” he said.

The returned candidates went on the floor of Parliament and they gave their group or party the name of Pakistan Muslim League. “Today, we call it PML-N or PML-Q, before that it was called Chattha league. They were all born on the floor of the non-party assembly of 1985,” he recalled.

What happens if the PTI-backed independents win a substantial number of seats but refuse to come to the National Assembly?

This wouldn’t bide well for the party, said Khan. “They have done this before and you saw what happened to them. I don’t think they are going to try the adventure again after the beating they took last time,” he said.

He added, however, that it was possible that they would try to form a group and call it the Insaf group or any other name.

If PTI-backed candidates form the largest bloc, can the party claim them as PTI members?

Journalist Zarrar Khuhro wasn’t too optimistic about the prospects of this happening. “The underlying assumption behind this question is that things operate according to the rules and the ledger of the law but I think it’s quite clear that in Pakistan this is not the case,” he said, pointing to the troubles faced by the party and its leadership in recent months.

“We have to look at it in the context of the back-to-back convictions of Imran Khan, the latest being in the fairly ridiculous iddat case. We have to look at the incredibly controversial and disproportionate sentences given to the PTI leaders and supporters, such as when the party’s election symbol was taken away. When we look at that particular context, I don’t see any way that there would suddenly be any magical relief for the PTI regardless of what rules they do or do not follow.

Lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii was slightly more upbeat about this, reasoning that though the ECP had denied the PTI an election symbol, it had not delisted the party. Basing his assessment on the petition of PTI-backed candidate Salman Akram Raja, who has approached the Supreme Court to seek recognition that he would be contesting the polls as a PTI ticketholder and not as an independent candidate, Jaferii said that legally, the PTI remains a political party.

In his petition to the SC, Raja had also reasoned that though the PTI had been deprived of a single symbol for all its candidates by the ECP, its existence and functioning as a political party remained unaffected. The party continues to exist and has not been dissolved, he had said.

Does PML-N have a chance of forming the government with the support of independents?

According to Khuhro, “a lot of people would be willing to ally with them. Now I would hesitate to give a blanket statement about what all independents — and I am assuming we are talking about PTI-linked independents — will do.”

He added, however, that this would be different from region to region. “In KP, I think the defectors from the PTI will be treated very harshly by the public. We have seen what seems to be a complete sweep for the PTI-linked candidates.”

In South Punjab, however, the position might be very different and PML-N may be able to bag a couple of the independents over, he said. “Some may opt to join the victors based on the calculation that any sort of backlash they suffer will be temporary and, if not, at the very least, manageable.”

Can PTI-linked independents elect a PM from among themselves?

According to journalist Shahzeb Jilani, once the returned candidates are notified, they then have three days to decide if they want to independently support a political party or join a party as a group.

According to journalist Shahzeb Jilani, if the PTI-backed independents want to emerge as the biggest group in Parliament, they would have to join an existing political party. “The name that is being mentioned is the Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen (MWM) which is already a registered party,” he said. The two parties have earlier forged alliances for local government elections. If they join that party, they will also get reserved seats and their numbers will go further up and then they can be a contender for the Leader of the House ’

He added, however, that they may get inducements from bigger players in the form of various incentives to defect from the PTI party line. “But if they are in one group, in one party, they will be a big bloc and will enjoy considerable influence in Parliament.”

Can PTI-backed candidates elect a Leader of the Opposition from among themselves?

For this, too, Jilani said the PTI would have to join a political party. “If they go as a bloc in one of the existing parties, obviously they would want to elect the Leader of the House, if they have the biggest number. If they can’t, for some reason, then yes, the second best choice will be to opt for Leader of the Opposition.