Pakistan is a country of over 180 million people, out of this 86 million are registered to vote. On Election Day it is reported that 55% of these people turned out to vote. This is an incredible increase from 44% turnout in the 2008 elections.
This turnout will not surprise anybody who has been following the Pakistani elections as the atmosphere in Pakistan has been electric for the last few months.
Parties such as PPP, PLM-N and PTI all held rallies which were attended by thousands. Pakistani media, social media and international media had all been overcome by election fever. Considering this and that there were 5,000 candidates campaigning for 342 National Assembly (NA) seats and 11,692 candidates campaigning for 728 Provisional Assembly (PA) seats, the fact that the turnout is on par with elections in states where democracy is entrenched does not surprise me.
The turnout for the last US election was 57.5% and the turnout in the last UK election was 65.1%.
Compared to past elections, there is no doubt that these elections were more transparent and fairer however they were also one of the bloodiest elections in Pakistan’s history. In the run up to the elections the Taliban had issued threats that they would target all places where election activities took place. Though non-secular parties such as the ANP, PPP and MQM were particular targeted, as Election Day came closer other parties were targeted.
The situation was particularly bad in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. In response to the violence in Pakistan, the caretaker government had posted over 600,000 security personnel across the country to protect voters.
Even considering the scale of this security operation there was still some violence across the country. In the running up to the elections over a 100 people tragically lost their lives. On the day itself 29 people were murdered across the country, 14 of these were killed in Karachi.
To the credit of the Pakistani people, this did not stop huge numbers of people from queuing for hours on end to exercise their basic democratic right to vote.
Not a moment after the election results were announced, allegations of vote rigging began to come in. It is clear that there were individual incidents of electoral fraud however there is nothing to suggest that it was widespread enough to alter the overall results of the election and compared to past elections there is no doubt that these elections were fairer.
The lack of proof in some cases did not stop candidates and parties from claiming they had only been defeated because the election was fixed. Some of these claims are held by the public to be possible such as PTI’s results in Lahore and others are widely seen as more unlikely.
These allegations led to protests and sit ins in the days following the election. Though many of the parties still claim they were wronged through election fraud, most have accepted the mandate of the PML-N.
The investigation into alleged electoral fraud is ongoing and the Election Commission recently ordered the Election tribunals to hear allegations of alleged vote rigging on a daily basis.
The question that now must be asked is whether the authorities can learn from this election and ensure that the next election is better managed.
What do these elections mean for the region and the world?
So, Pakistan has a new government, it faces a number of challenges but what do these elections and the appointment of Sharif as PM mean for the world?
Almost immediately after it became clear that Nawaz Sharif had achieved a near majority, felicitations began to come in from world leaders, notably the US, the UK and India.
Pakistan’s relationship with the US has slowly deteriorated due to Washington’s belief that Pakistan is not doing enough to tackle extremism and the controversial drone strikes programme in Pakistan.
Following the election’s President Obama congratulated Nawaz Sharif and vowed to work with Pakistan as “equal partners”.
He added “By conducting competitive campaigns, freely exercising your democratic rights, and persevering despite intimidation by violent extremists, you have affirmed a commitment to democratic rule that will be critical to achieving peace and prosperity for all Pakistanis”.
High praise for Pakistan but is this enough?
Since this statement, Nawaz Sharif has announced that the Taliban's offer for talks should be given serious consideration “All options should be tried, and gun are not a solution to all problems”.
To further complicate matters, President Obama’s speech on the 23rd of May is likely to have concerned the PM elect as Sharif had promised to make the US stop its drone strikes in Pakistan.
In his speech on counter terrorism strategy, the President acknowledged that the programme had damaged relations with Pakistan and that this new type of technology raises new questions. However he asserted that the strikes were necessary and legal “So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort and in self defence”.
Interestingly the question of consent was not the President’s focus (Pakistan has unequivocally said that it does not consent). Instead the President focussed on four aspects, near certainty of the target and that civilians would not be killed; capture was not feasible; authorities were unable or unwilling to address the threat and that there were no other reasonable alternatives.
Strictly from the view of the Pakistani authorities and not from a human rights prospective, it is likely that the Pakistani authorities will dispute at least one condition as they have consistently stated that they are both willing and able to combat the threat.
Though the President’s reassurance in regard to accountability may satisfy some critics, it will not help the US build a strong relationship with Pakistan as the Pakistani authorities still claim that it is an attack on their sovereignty.
In his first speech to MPs after his appointment as PM, speaking about drone strikes Sharif stated "We respect the sovereignty of others and they should respect our sovereignty and independence. This campaign must come to an end."
Like the US, India is also looking to Nawaz Sharif. Here, there may be some hope for stronger relations, during Mr Sharif’s previous terms as Prime Minister he made a genuine attempt to reach out.
On the 24th of May, Mr Sharif met the Indian High Commissioner to discuss ways in which they can boost bilateral ties.
This is indeed a good first step.
Better relations between the two nuclear neighbours will not only mean a more stable region but may be good news for Pakistan’s economy.
China has always been seen as Pakistan’s natural ally, possibly as they are both threatened by India, though in different ways.
After the elections the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Pakistan and reiterated his country's support for the country, he also stated that the progress and prosperity of Pakistan was important for China.
"Our two sides should focus on carrying out priority projects in connectivity, energy development and power generation and promoting the building of a China-Pakistan economic corridor" the Premier said.
During his visit the Premier addressed the senate and also met with Nawaz Sharif where they discussed how China can help in the field of nuclear energy.
The Chinese Premier also met with President Zardari, where he again reassured him of China's commitment to help end Pakistan's energy crisis, something that means no power for up to 20 hours a day. He also assured President Zardari that China will continue to support Pakistan in its efforts to uphold independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and in achieving national stability and development.
This will have been received well in Pakistan, not only because of the political message but because of what China's increased support may mean for Pakistan's economy.
A bright future?
Where does this leave Pakistan?
For one, it is clear that democracy is now entrenched in Pakistani civil society and there is no indication that the military which is as strong as ever will make a return.
The fact that the Pakistani people not only came out in huge numbers to vote but that in a time of austerity they voted for mainstream liberal parties is a testament to their character. In times of hardship and Pakistan is certainly in hardship, we have seen extremist parties gain support in other parts of the world. To Pakistan’s credit no extremist party gathered any significant support.
Though Election Day did not pass without incident, even considering the violence and allegations of electoral fraud, for the majority of the people of Pakistan it was a day to be proud.
So, will there be a new Pakistan?
The jury is still out on whether Nawaz Sharif can deliver what Imran Khan had promised “Naya Pakistan”. Perhaps it is too much to expect such change to come from familiar faces?
When it comes to the economy and the violence in Pakistan, the next government certainly has its hands full. However with a new government and with the PTI party promising a strong and vocal opposition there is at least some hope now that the situation will improve.
Whatever lies in Pakistan’s future, this election was undoubtedly a huge step in the right direction and a win for democracy.
Amjad Iqbal is an intern working at the European Parliament for a British MEP. Any opinions expressed are his own.