Pakistan's election chaos, Army influence, coalition complexities, and Imran Khan's legacy shape a precarious political landscape.
Pakistan’s general election on February 8 has presented a fractured verdict. The country’s Army should in theory be happy with a coalition government, minus the elements loyal to former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI). But the outcome has been more dramatic and the consequences less predictable than what the Army chief, Gen. Asim Munir, had bargained for.
There are two noticeable developments. First, Gen. Munir’s public comment that Pakistan’s government needs to be in “stable hands” and that “anarchy and polarisation” must end. This was unnecessary public moralising when the Pakistan Army has been steering the pre-electoral political developments. Imran Khan and principal aides have been incarcerated on hyped-up charges, his political cadres hounded and the PTI, his party, disassembled. Second, the public warnings by the United States, Britain and the European Union that irregularities, interference and alleged fraud in the conduct of elections must be investigated. This seems hypocritical public posturing as they too hardly want Imran Khan back in power.
They could hardly forget Imran Khan’s hijacking of Pakistani foreign policy, especially his Moscow visit to befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin on the very day that the Ukraine war began.
Electoral drama is ongoing in Pakistan. The results of 10 seats were yet to be declared even over 48 hours after the polls ended. Multiple claims have been filed, or are under preparation, alleging the manipulation of results, which were allegedly altered after huge leads were reported by pro-Imran Independent candidates. The turnout this time has been approximately 47 per cent, compared to 51.1 per cent in the 2018 polls. The party-wise seats declared, with slight reported variations, are: PML(N) 75; PPP 54; Independents (mostly pro-Imran Khan) around 96; and others 31. Although the Pakistan National Assembly has 336 members, elections are held for 266 seats. Thereafter, on a proportional basis, 60 members are nominated, consisting of 50 women and 10 minority members. The catch is that Imran Khan loyalists have won as Independents, after being denied their party symbol. The proportional add-ons may not be available to Independents.
The focus now shifts to what happens next. Clearly, a coalition government is unavoidable as no party has got a majority. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, seeking a fourth term in office, is approaching the Bhutto-Zardari led Pakistan People’s Party as well as the Sindh-based MQM to forge an alliance. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the prime ministerial candidate of the PPP, has claimed that no government can be formed in Islamabad and in the crucial provinces without them. The PTI chairman, Gohar Ali Khan, claimed the ability to form the government in Islamabad and Punjab. Their party has swept the polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Their loyalists, though Independent candidates, outnumber the rest in the national parliament. However, the Army will exert its full power to negate the PTI’s coalition-building. With Imran Khan and Shah Mahmood Qureshi stymied by the criminal cases against them, the PTI may lack another credible nominee for Prime Minister. They could shrewdly instead offer support to the PPP for making Bilawal Prime Minister. After all, his mother Benazir Bhutto was assassinated when her deal with military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf went sour. That conspiracy has never been credibly unravelled.
The PPP will however realise that any deal with PTI means the coalition will inherit Imran Khan’s legal and political burdens, especially the animosity of Pakistan’s “Deep State”.
The more likely outcome is power-sharing between PML(N) and PPP with Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister. They could settle for a shared term, though such deals tend to get derailed when the first occupant refuses to hand over power midway through his term. The Bhutto-Zardari clan would also worry that while Nawaz Sharif may be old and physically challenged, his daughter and heir apparent Maryam could consolidate power to challenge Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s ascendancy to the Prime Minister’s chair.
Gen. Asim Munir and his senior colleagues would of course prefer a quick transition to a coalition that is functional without being assertive. This writer remembers as deputy secretary to the President that when Pakistan’s President Gen. Zia-ul Haq had called on President Zail Singh in March 1987, Nawaz Sharif had accompanied him as chief minister of Pakistan’s Punjab. President Zia-ul Haq’s death in in 1988 opened up Nawaz Sharif’s path to higher office. He became Prime Minister in 1990, but was ejected mid-term. He returned to the post in 1997, even handpicking his Army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in 1998. Two years later the two fell out over normalising relations with India, leading to the Kargil war and his ouster in a coup engineered by Gen. Musharraf.
Therefore, Nawaz Sharif knows the cautionary historical lesson. Pakistan’s Prime Ministers who abandon coordination with the military and start asserting on national security and foreign policy lose office or end up exiled, jailed or even in a grave. Imran Khan is a living example of this.
The scenario this time is complicated by Imran Khan’s feisty fight-back. As a cricketing icon, who has mastered the art of mixing religion and nationalism, he has demonstrated his pan-Pakistan appeal. Despite the full might of the Pakistan Army and misuse of judicial rulings, his followers showed devotion by voting for his scattered followers in numbers greater than the others could muster. This core support will get tested as power is wielded by some combination of his opponents. The Army would expect the new regime to finish the annihilation of PTI and marginalisation of Imran Khan.
However, with the economy on life support and serious terrorism threats emanating from Afghanistan, especially if the PTI controls the sensitive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the next Pakistan coalition government inherits a crown of thorns. The danger of the crisis in Gaza affecting Pakistan became obvious when Iran attacked alleged terrorist facilities in Balochistan. The United States and its Western allies as well as China would want the new government to restore political stability and good civil-military coordination.
Relations with India would depend on the Indian government after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections providing Pakistan a face-saver by at least restoring the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir. However, Imran Khan’s shadow will continue to hover over Pakistan as his popularity is no longer related to him holding an office. The New York Times correspondent in Pakistan reported that for the first time in Punjab criticism was heard of the Army as an institution. The Imran saga is now inextricably linked to Pakistan’s evolution as a nation.