Pakistan will have a stable government, but not stability

Pakistan is likely to see a stable but fragile government, and the opposition will try its best to render it dysfunctional.

WrittenBy:Sushant Sareen
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As expected, Imran Khan managed to come out on top in the Pakistan general elections. Though he’s fallen short of a simple majority in the Pakistan National Assembly, the people who helped him win will also ensure the shortfall in the numbers game is filled up without too much trouble. In the Punjab Assembly also, the odds are heavily in favour of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which managed to cross the halfway mark and capture that province.

But while the PTI is all set to form the government in not just Islamabad but also in three out of the four provinces—only Sindh will be out of the clutches of Imran Khan and his backers—except for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, all the other governments will be formed with wafer-thin majorities. On paper at least, these governments will be extremely vulnerable to “purana” Pakistan or, if you will, old-style politicians against whom Imran Khan has pretended to crusade. In fact, not just the guys forming a coalition with Imran, but also the “electables” he assiduously pursued to join his party will represent “purana” Pakistan more than they will be the face of “naya” Pakistan.

The immediate problem for the PTI will be that the seats it has won—both in the National and Punjab Assemblies—will get reduced when people elected on multiple seats have to choose which seat they will hold. For instance, Imran Khan has won on all five seats he contested. But when the election for Prime Minister and Chief Minister takes place, it will be on the basis of headcount, and not seat count. This means that the PTI tally in the National Assembly will come down by at least 9-10 seats (taking into account a few other PTI members who have won on multiple seats, as well as some potential and possible alliance partners).

In a situation where every single seat counts in the PM and CM election, managing the numbers game will be a lot more complicated, and far tighter if the opposition throws its hat into the ring. But if push comes to shove, there’s a strong possibility of the “political engineers” forming “forward blocs”, and hijacking some of the other parties to cobble together the numbers for PTI. This might not be legally or constitutionally kosher, but in a country where a three-time Prime Minister can be disqualified on a charge for which he wasn’t even tried—and can be jailed on a charge that was never proven—the law and constitution is what the people in uniform make it to be.

There is of course a quid pro quo that could be worked out: the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PLM-N, doesn’t challenge Imran Khan at the centre, and the PTI allows the PML-N to form the government in Lahore. But given the bad blood between these parties, and the unforgiving and ruthless nature of politics, this sort of an arrangement appears to be a little far-fetched for now. Even more so because ruling in Islamabad without simultaneously ruling over Lahore is quite meaningless. It is not just counterproductive, but also destructive for any government at the centre to hand over control of Punjab—the controlling authority of Pakistan—to a hostile opposition party. According to Pakistani analysts, forming a government in Islamabad without a government in Lahore is akin to the last Mughal emperor whose writ ran from Red Fort to Palam.

It is for this reason that Imran Khan and those pulling his strings will pull out all stops to ensure that the PTI is able to form a government in Lahore. It’s just too bad if this adds to the already existing bad blood between the PML-N and PTI, and increases the political polarisation. Paradoxically enough, the flimsy majority the PTI will enjoy in Islamabad and Lahore will actually make the government lot more stable than if it enjoyed a brute majority.

One of the iron laws of Pakistani politics is that the more fragile a government, the greater its chances of survival. This is partly because such a government cannot afford to bulldoze its way and has to compromise to survive. It’s also partly because the more feeble a government, the less threatening it is to the opposition. Whereas the stronger the government, the greater the incentive and desire in the opposition to pull it down. Finally, since a feeble government survives on the crutches provided by the miltablishment, the “deep state” can get what it wants without having to destabilise the government.

Politically too, it really doesn’t serve any purpose for most of the mainstream parties to bring down the government, and with it the entire edifice of whatever goes for democracy in Pakistan. Having just gone through a very tough election, the last thing the main parties and the winning candidates would want is to go into an agitation mode, and force yet another election in the next few months.

For many parties critical to any agitation succeeding, there is no real incentive to confront the miltablishment and force the government out of office. The Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) has won comfortably in Sindh, and wouldn’t want to jeopardise its government there. Plus, the top leadership of the PPP has the sword of accountability hanging over their heads. There are corruption cases and inquiries that they have to face, and they know that if they don’t play ball, they will join Nawaz Sharif in jail.

The party that can play kingmaker in both the centre and Lahore—the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q)—is led by the Chaudhry brothers from Gujrat, who are quintessential establishment lackeys. They will try and indulge in some hard bargaining with the PTI, but won’t go to the extent of upsetting the ‘establishment’s” apple cart. Once again, the anti-corruption watchdog—the National Accountability Bureau—has sent out warning signals to the Chaudhrys’ that if they don’t fall in line, there will be consequences.

Shahbaz Sharif too faces a similar predicament. There are any number of cases that have been opened against him. In some of these cases, bureaucrats very close to him have already been arrested. If he goes on the warpath, it is virtually a given that he will join his brother in jail. Even otherwise, the PML-N, for all its tall talk, doesn’t have the stomach for a sustained agitation and street fighting. There is also a fear that with the spectre of a forward bloc hanging over the PML-N, forcing newly elected members to jeopardise their seats might push them towards the exit door of the party.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has been so badly bruised over the last couple of years that it would make a Faustian bargain that creates some space for it and provides some relief to its cadres, rather than go for a collision with the Pakistani state. Of course, the MQM’s dilemma is that since the PTI has encroached on and is competing for its political space, supporting the PTI to form a government confronts it with a Catch-22 situation. The stark choice before the MQM is short-term relief versus long-term irrelevance.

The bottomline is that only parties with nothing to lose will want to take to the streets, like the mullahs of the Muttahida Majlis–e–Amal (MMA) and Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), or nationalists like the Awami National Party (ANP), Pashtonkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), Qaumi Watan Party (QWP), or even the miltablishment’s creation, Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), with little or no stake in the current dispensation. But without the bigger players jumping in, their agitation is hardly going to shake the government.

While this means that the PTI government will be relatively stable, and the opposition isn’t going to try and pull it down anytime soon—and certainly not without a nod and nudge from the miltablishment—the opposition will almost certainly do everything to obstruct, paralyse and pressure the government. The name of the game will be to kill the PTI government by making it dysfunctional. Alongside, questions will continue to be raised over the legitimacy of the government which has come into office with the help of a badly tainted election, in which the mandate of the people was stolen.

The implication of this strategy is that the fanciful ideas and pies in the sky that the PTI and Imran Khan have sold to the people will come crashing down. The numbers might allow PTI to form the government but will make legislation all but impossible, even less so because the Senate will continue to be dominated by the opposition. Any ideas of transforming the constitution—creating a new province in South Punjab, which is a solemn promise of Imran Khan—isn’t likely to happen. Nor is there going to be any dilution of the devolution of powers and finances to the provinces. With the opposition constantly baying for the blood of the government, governance is going to be very difficult.

The tough economic decisions that the government will have to take will only play to the opposition’s advantage and deprive the PTI of a lot of its political capital. To make matters worse, Imran Khan’s inexperience and his arrogance will also turn off many people. Under Imran Khan, therefore, Pakistan will get a stable government but is unlikely to get stability.


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