Be it coalition, PTI bloc or churn within the army: All roads in Pak lead to uncertainty

A look at possible scenarios after the election results.

WrittenBy:Nirupama Subramanian
Article image

The February 8 elections in Pakistan have resulted in outcomes atypical of best laid plans. Every calculation of Pakistan army chief General Asim Munir and his “selected” winner Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Muslim League (N), has gone askew. The voters’ message was clear - against “selection”.

Even the jailed Imran Khan may not have anticipated that the candidates of his Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf, who contested as independents because the party was barred from the election, and were prevented from campaigning, would emerge as the single largest bloc.

The elections  were marred by delays in announcing the results  and dramatic reversals of large leads for PTI-backed candidates in many constituencies. All contesting members of the Sharif family won their seats. Nawaz, the paterfamilias, who was initially trailing far behind the “independent” candidate in the two constituencies he contested during the count on February 8 evening, was declared the winner on February 9 in one. He has contested the result in the other, where his PTI-backed rival has claimed victory.

The results are already the most contested in Pakistan since 1988, as were the elections the most tainted in the same period. The Pakistan Supreme Court is flooded with petitions from PTI independents, that their victory was stolen from them.

According to results notified by the Election Commission as of  Monday morning, PTI-backed candidates had won 93 seats, but it cannot claim to be the single largest party because it was not in the contest. PML(N), whose candidates won in 75 seats, has declared itself the single largest party. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has won 54. The split vote necessitates  a coalition government, and portends more uncertainty for Pakistan. 

With the situation fluid, the well-known Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa and this writer discussed possible scenarios and this is what we came up with:

Coalition led by PML(N) and PPP, with smaller players

A coalition government between PML(N) and PPP, with other smaller parties such as Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM-P), and Jamiat Ulema Islam(JUI-Fazlur)  coalition would be the path of least resistance for the two main parties, and would be a near replica of the Pakistan Democratic Movement government that assumed office after the ouster of the Imran Khan government through a vote of no-confidence in April 2022. With the PML(N) and PPP opening talks, it seems the likeliest of the scenarios.

A PDM 2.0 would be what army chief, General Asim Munir, probably meant when he called for a “healing alliance” in Pakistan. For the army, this would be the best Plan B after PML(N) failed to get a majority on its own. 

In some ways, from the army’s point of view, it may even be ideal that Sharif has not received an outright mandate, with a ruling alliance and the independents, who may form a strong bloc in Parliament, keeping him on a tight leash.

The fractured mandate puts the army in the driver’s seat, to bring together various parties into a ruling coalition. It would play a big role in building the coalition by deploying the crafts of saam, daam, dand, bhed.

A PTI “independent” has already been persuaded to jump ship and rejoin the PML(N), which he had left for the PTI some years ago. The efforts to break other independents will accelerate in the coming days.

Despite the brave face Nawaz Sharif put up for his “victory speech”, in which he urged “national unity” and announced that he had entrusted the responsibility of coalition talks to his brother Shehbaz, it was clear that he  was far from happy.

With his  political legacy tainted by what Imran Khan has dubbed the “mother of all selections”, the veteran may even leave the running of the coalition to his brother Shehbaz Sharif. His main aim now would be to ensure that his daughter Maryam Nawaz is installed as chief minister of Punjab. This will not be easy, as the party has not won enough seats in the provincial assembly to form the government on its own.

Given the anti-PML(N) mood on the streets ever since the results were announced, the likely coalition-government will take office shorn of credibility even before its formation. Neither Nawaz   nor his brother have the political capital at the moment to pursue rapprochement with India, even though the elder Sharif mentioned   “having better relations with neighbours” as one of the tasks for the new government.

Short-lived coalition

The longevity of PDM 2.0 is uncertain. The PPP, whose differences with the PML(N) were all too evident during the election campaign, is playing hardball. It  expects to play a decisive role in the coming weeks and months.

Despite the ongoing talks to “save the nation” as per a statement by the PML(N), PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto is said to be squeamish about sitting in an alliance with the “selected” party. It was Bhutto who made that descriptor famous by referring to Imran Khan as “selected” during a speech in the Pakistan parliament, entering it in the country’s political lexicon forever. 

His father Asif Ali Zardari, however, seems to have fewer qualms. The PPP is now pressing for the Prime Minister’s post for the son, and if the Islamabad rumour mill is to be believed, the  president’s post for the father.. In addition, the PPP also wants the Foreign and some other key portfolios. It will depend though on how much the PML(N) will give, and how much space the army might allow the PPP. 

Some believe that after the questionable “victory”, including in his own seats, Nawaz Sharif would be better served agreeing to let PPP take the lead in the coalition.

But a PPP-headed coalition led by Bilawal Zardari would be as weak as a PML(N) headed government. The two parties have conflicting approaches to the economy, with the PPP even promising free electricity during the campaign, which flew in the face of IMF conditions negotiated by the PDM government to end state subsidies on public utilities. The new government has to approach the IMF again soon, as the Stand By Arrangement concluded last year, expires on April 20.

Any decisions on the economy that are seen as anti-people, in an atmosphere that is already bristling with anger on the street at the “stolen” election, will destabilise the government. The only glue that can keep the two parties together is the army.

But if either party decides to pull the plug on the other, with or without the help of the army, or the army pulls the plug on both, any other configuration of political players in office will be as vulnerable to the one that went before it.

PTI-backed “independents” in power

This would require the independents  to form a bloc. But even so, they cannot remain in parliament without joining a political party. As of now, it seems likely that they will join the Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen Pakistan, a small Shia organisation that has won a single seat in parliament this time. Its candidate won the Shia-dominated Kurram constituency, where the community lives under the threat of violent attacks against it by Sunni extremists.

Significantly, the MWM had secured the support of the PTI for the Kurram candidate before the election. If the independents merge with the MWM, the ensuing formation would be eligible for a share of the nominated seats that every party gets in proportion to its strength in the assembly. There are 70 nominated seats in the 336-strong National Assembly. As a political party, the independents would be closer to government formation than either the PML(N) or PPP. But they would still need the support of another party.

But first, the independents would have to be able to resist the fish and loaves that would be used to break them from remaining what is de facto the single largest party at this point.If they remain determined, a PTI-turned MWM may be ready even to make an alliance with the PPP, which has dropped hints that it has not shut out the idea.

Bilawal indicated during the campaign that he favours rapprochement with all political forces, and that he will release all political prisoners, including those of the PTI. This may include the release from jail of Imran Khan.

Army chief Munir will do everything to prevent such an eventuality, as he could  be the first casualty of such an arrangement. This is why it is the least likely of scenarios.

The army against its chief

At one time, it would have been unlikely that the anger on the streets against an army chief, that too  for his role in brazen pre and post-poll rigging, would leach into the country’s most powerful institution. But not after last May.

As is well known by now, there were divisions within the army for and against Imran Khan in his fight against the former chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa (retd), and his successor, Munir, who was handpicked by the Sharifs. And the PTI leader tried to exploit these divisions to incite a rebellion within. 

After the incidents of May 9 last year, when Khan’s supporters took to the streets, targeting army properties in their anger, Munir acted with a firm hand to quell any possibility of a mutiny or a coup against him. A corps commander was removed from his post, some officers were reportedly arrested, and others sacked.
If the anger against the subversion of the vote continues and boils over, requiring tough law enforcing steps to be taken on the streets, it is not improbable that the sentiment against Munir starts finding resonance within the force again, and turns into a campaign within. 

Plotting against the chief is not easy, but over the last several months, so many unprecedented events have shaken Pakistan, that is no longer beyond the pale even for a force that takes great pride in its discipline above everything else.

Munir’s term is until November 2025. Any moves ahead towards an extension may provide the first indicators  of what the  army thinks of its chief, if not before.

Irrespective of the outcome, the overall picture for the coming months is one of political instability and uncertainty. 

Small teams can do great things. All it takes is a subscription. Subscribe now and power our work.


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like