Pakistan has been plunged into a new political crisis after ousted prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) lost a key vote on Friday in Punjab, the most populous province. This comes after the party won a by-election last week.
Khan called on his supporters to protest across Pakistan and thousands took to the streets late Friday night, calling the loss a "theft."
Khan's candidate, Pervez Elahi, initially received 186 votes but the deputy speaker of the Punjab Assembly Dost Muhammad Mazari rejected 10 of the votes over violations of poll rules.
Meanwhile, Hamza Shehbaz had 179 votes and thus retained his position as chief minister in Punjab.
Khan has repeatedly called for early elections due to his party's growing popularity, but Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, his main political opponent, has announced that the elections will be held on schedule in 2023.
"The only way forward from here is to hold free and transparent elections," Khan tweeted last Monday after he won the by-elections in Punjab. "Any other way will only lead to increased political uncertainty and further economic chaos," he said.
Could early elections help create stability?
Since his ouster, thousands of Khan supporters have gathered at rallies where he has delivered lengthy speeches and claimed that Sharif's government was imposed on Pakistan by a US-led conspiracy.
"Early elections are the longstanding demand of PTI as political polarisation, particularly in Punjab, is growing. All of the macroeconomic indicators are negative and there is no way forward except through early elections," Maleeka Bokhari, former parliamentary secretary and PTI lawmaker, told DW.
Some analysts believe that the current political and deepening economic crisis could ease as a result of free and fair elections.
"Elections are key, so long as they are viewed as free and fair," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.
"If they were seen as credible elections, then the political crisis would ease as there would be more stability with a government in place that's viewed as legitimate. And the economic crisis would ease as the government would no longer be distracted by political tumult, and donors — including the IMF — would feel comfortable providing funds with less instability and a government viewed by the public as legitimate," Kugelman added.
"Given the current momentum, it seems likely that Imran Khan and the PTI would achieve success if elections were held this year, particularly in Punjab and KP [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] province. The PTI is in a stronger position electorally than it was at the start of the year, prior to the no-confidence motion," Niloufer Siddiqui, a political science professor at SUNY Albany in the United States, told DW.
Kugelman added that while early elections could be helpful, they shouldn't be held too early.
"No matter how much the government is struggling to hold on, it will want to stay the course until the fall, so that it can weigh in on the selection of the next army chief. That's a critical matter given the power of the army chief, and the current government will want to make sure that the next chief is not on the side of Imran Khan, the government's core rival."
"Khan may sweep the polls, but not necessarily. Pakistani politics are nothing if not unpredictable. And the wildcard factor is the military. If Khan struggles to win back enough support from the army, they could potentially hurt his cause in elections," he said.
Meanwhile, Bokhari believes that the current prime minister is aware of Khan's growing popularity and is making a tactical move for this reason.
"Sharif is delaying the election announcement. He knows that they are deeply unpopular and that people rejected Khan's ouster as a result of regime changes, and Punjab has rejected Sharif in the recent by-elections," she said.
Siddiqui of SUNY Albany added that the political turmoil in the country has taken a toll on the economy as well.
"The combination of Imran Khan's effective narrative and the economic turmoil has hurt the incumbent parties," she said. "There is little doubt that this political turmoil and uncertainty, however, has taken an additional toll on the economy, and will continue to do so. This has been coupled with extreme weather, which is laying bare many of the country's deep-seated infrastructural and governance problems."
Haroon Janjua is an award-winning Pakistani journalist covering South Asia. His work has appeared in several media outlets, including The New York Times, The Guardian, Deutsche Welle, Fox News, VICE, South China Morning Post and Asia Democracy Chronicles.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Deutsche Welle, and is published by special syndication arrangement.