With the single largest political group led by Imran Khan kept out of power, the PML (N)-PPP coalition government’s survival will rest on the army’s backing.

By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, February 24:

A coalition government comprising the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) has been formed in Pakistan following the hard-fought and controversial February 8 elections to the National Assembly.

As per the deal, PML (N)’s Shehbaz Sharif, younger brother of the party’s founder-leader Nawaz Sharif, is Prime Minister and Asif Zardari of the PPP is expected to be elected President when the Presidential election is held in March.

However, a major flaw in the arrangement is that the power structure does not include the single largest group in the National Assembly, comprising the followers of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). These members of the National Assembly had fought the elections as Independents because the PTI was denied recognition by the Election Commission. They had also fought without the PTI’s popular symbol, the cricket bat.

Regardless of the repression of its political activities, including the criminalisation of any association with the PTI and other obstructions faced by PTI candidates, the Independents secured 101 seats in the 266-member National Assembly. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) got 74 seats and the Pakistan People’s Party led by former Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari got 54 seats.

The formation of the PML (N)-PPP coalition was not easy. Negotiations were tough. According to the political commentator Najam Sethi, the army (called the Establishment in Pakistan) was worried that a government might not be formed and informally warned the two parties that if they did not settle matters quickly, it would have to step in. Pakistan had gone under military rule from 1958 to 1971, from 1977 to 1988 and from 1999 to 2008.

Two days after polling day, General Asim Munir, the chief of army staff, issued a statement that has subsequently become the subject of speculation. He said: “Elections and democracy are means to serve the people of Pakistan and not ends in themselves. Elections are not a zero-sum competition of winning and losing but an exercise to determine the mandate of the people.”

Munir spoke of the need for “stable hands and a healing touch to move on from the politics of anarchy and polarisation which does not suit a progressive country of 250 million people.”

The army’s anxiety about government formation stemmed from the fact that it backed the anti-PTI parties in the elections, namely the PML (N) and the PPP. This is because there was no love lost between the army and Imran Khan’s PTI.

The PTI had virtually declared war on the army. He had accused the army of trying to overthrow him with American assistance. He pointed an accusing finger at the army when he was ousted in April 2022. He had also instigated violent demonstrations against the army after he was arrested in May 2023. He had accused army intelligence of trying to assassinate him.    

Lacking in numbers even after forming a coalition, the PML(N)-PPP combine will still need as many Members of the National Assembly (MNA) as it can take on board. But this is not a difficult job for a group in power, especially when it is backed by the army.

However, the single-largest group, comprising Independents who are followers of Imran Khan, will have to sit in the opposition. But it is not expected to be a tame opposition. The PTI is still bitterly complaining about the election having been rigged before the polling, during the polling and after the polling.

International opinion backs these charges. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, had said that “Any allegations of corruption or fraud must be fully investigated, and those responsible must be held accountable. The United States supports the right of the Pakistani people to a democratically elected government that respects the rule of law and human rights.”

“Candidates who had lost still knocking at the doors of courts and the Election Commission of Pakistan for justice against rigging. International media as well as foreign legislators, the UN Secretary General and governments are demanding investigations into the allegations of vote manipulation,” wrote Imtiaz Gul, Executive Director, Centre for Research and Security Studies, in Islamabad.

The rigged elections will continue to be a thorn in the flesh of the government and the army.

Economic Challenges

The new government will be facing multiple economic challenges, some of which will be exploited by Imran Khan. He has already kicked off the conflict by objecting to the IMF package for Pakistan.

Pakistan plans to seek a new loan of at least US$ 6 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help the incoming government repay billions in debt due this year. The IMF is inclined to help. Julie Kozack, an information officer in the IMF, said that during the tenure of the interim government, the authorities had “maintained economic stability”.

But Imran Khan asked his team to write a letter to the IMF to say that if the IMF wants to talk to Pakistan, it should demand an independent audit of the elections. 

There are a host of issues which Imran Khan could exploit. But populist and self-seeking politicians, whether in the government or the opposition, have their own priorities, and the core issues may not be attended to, which is why economic stagnation continues in Pakistan year after year.

The World Bank has identified Pakistan’s economic problems and given solutions for them. But making these corrections will need a strong political will, the right kind of focus and public awareness and involvement.

The critical question is whether those in the government and the opposition have the right kind of awareness, the political will and commitment to make the necessary changes.

Going by the past record of governments, the new government is unlikely to chart a different path. And as for the opposition, the chances of its behaving responsibly are equally dim.  

According to the World Bank, Pakistan faces enormous problems.  7% of its children die before their 5th birthday, multiple times higher than in comparable countries. 40% of children under 5 suffer from stunted growth. 78% of 10-year-old children are unable to read age-appropriate text, while over 20 million children are out of school.

Tax collection has remained at a low 10% of GDP for decades. Abolishing expensive tax exemptions and reducing compliance costs could quickly generate about 3% of GDP in added revenues. Real estate, agriculture, and retail are undertaxed.  

Most loss-making public enterprises need to be privatized. Poorly targeted subsidies in agriculture and energy should be cut, while protecting the poorest.

Current policies distort markets for the benefit of a few, while preventing productivity growth. Frequent overvaluation of the currency coupled with high tariffs lead firms to focus on domestic markets, dis-incentivizing exports. Tax distortions also discourage productive investment and support non-tradable sectors such as real estate.

Subsidies should be reallocated into public goods such as research on seeds, veterinary services, irrigation, drainage services, promoting regenerative agriculture, and building integrated agriculture value chains. Such measures could generate productivity gains, boost on- and off-farm incomes, and make Pakistan more resilient against climate shocks.

Energy sector inefficiencies?need to be addressed faster and more consistently as they have long been a drain on public resources.

Will the new government and the opposition highlight and attend to these issues?