Pakistan: With a hung Parliament, main political parties try to evolve power-sharing formula

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By Our Correspondent

NEW DELHI – With a hung Parliament emerging in the results declared for the February 8 general elections in Pakistan, the country’s main political parties have started making efforts to evolve a power-sharing formula with the objective of forming a coalition government. There were widespread allegations of rigging of elections to ensure the defeat of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

The announcement of election results witnessed an unusual delay, as the independent candidates, most of who were backed by PTI, won 101 seats in the 266-member National Assembly. They were followed by three-time former PM Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) with 75 seats, which technically is the single largest party now in the Parliament.

Pakistan Army chief General Asim Munir has extended support to Nawaz Sharif after he called for the formation of a coalition government to pull the nation out of the economic crisis and other difficulties. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Bilawal Zardari Bhutto got 54 seats, and the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P) got 17 seats.

The top leaders of PML-N and PPP have discussed a new power-sharing formula for dividing the five-year tenure between them, as efforts to form a coalition government gathered pace since February 12. Despite the Independents backed by PTI winning the highest number of seats, doubts persist about the shape of the next government of Pakistan.

None of the three major parties – PML-N, PPP, or the PTI – has won the necessary numbers to secure a majority in the National Assembly. As they are unable to form the government on their own, it is still unclear as to who will become the next Prime Minister of Pakistan. To form a government, a party has to win 133 seats out of 265 contested seats in the National Assembly.

The leaders of PML-N and PPP have discussed the idea of appointing a Prime Minister for half the term during their first meeting. A PML-N candidate may serve as Prime Minister for three years and PPP’s leader for two years. The PML-N leaders also held a meeting with MQM-P leaders in Lahore and reached a principled agreement to work together in the “upcoming government”.

The PTI has decided to sit on the Opposition benches, leaving the field open for PML-N and PPP as well as others to form a coalition, party leader Barrister Gohar Ali Khan said, while affirming that the PTI would form a strong Opposition. “There will be no talks with anyone to make a government or to make a government together with them. It is better to sit in the Opposition than to make a government, but we think we have the majority,” Khan was quoted as saying by “Dawn” newspaper.

The PTI leaders have also met President Arif Alvi and briefed him on the alleged irregularities during the elections. According to a statement issued by the President’s office, Alvi met with PTI leaders Raoof Hassan and Umer Niazi, during which they informed the President about the evident irregularities during the polls.

The shape of the new set-up is likely to be decided within the next two days. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 35-year-old former Foreign Minister, said no one could form governments at the Centre, Punjab or Balochistan without his party’s support, and the PPP’s door was open to every political party for dialogue, as reconciliation was vital for political stability.

The powerful Pakistan Army, which has ruled the nation for more than half of its 75 years of existence, has wielded considerable power in the country’s politics. The Army chief noted that the people of Pakistan reposed their combined trust in the Constitution and it was now “incumbent upon all political parties to reciprocate the same with political maturity and unity.”

The initial formula stipulates that if the coalition parties agree to give the post of Prime Minister to the PML-N, then the post of President and Speaker will be given to the PPP. However, the victory of PTI-backed Independents was phenomenal for Imran Khan, who has been in jail for almost a year, had no access to the electorate and has not participated in electioneering.

Imran Khan was handed down three prison terms a few days before the elections, after being found guilty on charges which include corruption, getting married illegally and revealing state secrets. While PTI was denied its election symbol on the ballot paper, Imran Khan has been barred from running for public office for 10 years and has over 170 other cases against him.

Pakistan needs to bring the new government in office as soon as possible, as any delay will weigh on an economy already challenged on several fronts. Inflation is running at 28%, the fastest pace in Asia, and the latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout programme is set to expire in March, suggesting that the next Prime Minister will have to negotiate a new deal.

The blame of rigging the elections has squarely gone to the caretaker government and the entire machinery of the state. Their actions worsened political polarisation, and they did not know when to stop. It seems clear that elections will not provide any closure for Pakistan’s political crisis. Crisis and instability will continue to plague the nation, with dissent kept in check through the use of fear tactics.

According to the Pakistani newspapers, there were significant irregularities in elections that voters must be given answers for, and it is important that their concerns are promptly addressed by the Election Commission of Pakistan. The most pressing issue is what seems to be the outright theft of the public mandate in some parts of the country, as evidenced by the large discrepancies between various reported results. Wherever the rules call for it, the Election Commission must allow a recount.

The February 8 elections were not held on a level-playing field. In addition to Imran Khan, several other PTI leaders were also in jail or on the run, while others were forced to quit politics or defect to another party. What Pakistan saw in the run-up to the elections was a systematic effort by powerful quarters to dismantle Imran Khan’s political vehicle.

All the developments after the declaration of election results point to political manoeuvring aimed at stitching together a unity government which will keep the PTI and Imran Khan out of power. The Independents could also come under pressure to switch to the coalition parties. The PTI has now called for street protests, triggering memories of the widespread clashes in May 2023 after Imran Khan’s arrest.

The results have also underlined Imran Khan’s popularity and public anger towards the establishment. For a long-term solution, the Army will be advised to make peace with Imran Khan and allow the spirit of the results to prevail. As political parties which finished second and third are moving ahead with their plans to form the coalition government, the public discontent and distrust will remain the unresolved issues.

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