NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 16

Challenges for coalition government

The national elections on February 8 have, at least according to official results, created a divided mandate, with significant adverse implications for the country.

The tally of results indicates that candidates supported by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) secured a majority of approximately 95 seats, followed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) with around 70 seats, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) securing at least 50 seats.

However, the election results have become notably controversial, as high-ranking officials have publicly acknowledged manipulating the results in favor of the PML-N. The PTI, despite winning the majority, was prevented from forming a new government. Consequently, the PML-N and the PPP have jointly declared their intention to establish the next government.

According to the power-sharing arrangement between the PML-N and the PPP, the former will hold the position of prime minister, with Shahbaz Sharif returning as the chief executive. Meanwhile, former President Asif Ali Zardari of the PPP is slated to become the next President of Pakistan. Although the PPP has initially opted not to participate in Shahbaz Sharif’s federal cabinet, there is an expectation that the party might reconsider, citing ‘national’ interests.

Nevertheless, there are uncertainties in the power-sharing formula between the PML-N and the PPP. Authentic reports suggest that the PPP was initially reluctant to enter into a coalition government with the PML-N, but influential forces compelled their participation. Interestingly, the PPP had expressed a preference for making Bilawal Bhutto Zardari the new prime minister, but the power-sharing dynamics with the PML-N made this untenable. Publicly, the PPP leadership acknowledged its willingness to form a coalition government with the PTI, with the PTI as the junior partner. This alternative, it seems, was also acceptable to the influential establishment. The PPP has openly stated that such an arrangement would have been a win-win situation for them.

Initially, having Bilawal as the prime minister would have ensured a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, free from dependence on parties like the PML-N or smaller groups such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) for support.

However, the founder chairman of the PTI, Imran Khan, who is currently in jail, opted against forming a coalition government with either the PPP or the PML-N. He viewed these parties as responsible for the ousting of his government in April 2022 and chose not to grant any concessions to them. While Mr. Khan may have valid arguments for avoiding a coalition, taking such extreme positions in politics is generally considered unfavorable. Politics, often described as ‘the art of the possible,’ suggests that a party or leader should explore all avenues to attain power and then utilize it for the benefit of the people, not for vested interests. It is essential not to compromise on principles, particularly those related to public interest and democracy. However, within the framework of these principles, any coalition, alliance, or political formation is justifiable.

In the current media-centric era, leaders like Imran Khan may fear that altering their positions could be perceived as compromising on principles. Khan has gained a reputation for making U-turns. However, as the political scholar Hans Jan Morgenthau aptly noted, leadership should not be afraid of public opinion but should prioritize national and public interests. Public opinion can be unpredictable and, at times, erratic. Therefore, a true leader should guide public opinion rather than being enslaved by it.

Looking at the potential future of a PML-N-PPP coalition government, the prospects appear exceedingly grim. The primary reason is the highly controversial nature of the entire electoral process, marked by significant allegations of rigging from the PTI. These allegations are not only backed by the PTI but also find support in independent international media reports, a concern echoed by the United States and other influential capitals.

A government that has been accused both domestically and internationally of seizing power through electoral malpractice is unlikely to possess the legitimacy required to govern. Such a scenario would not only pose a psychological challenge for the prospective prime minister and coalition partners but also give rise to practical issues. For instance, the international community may hesitate to extend the necessary support and respect to a government tainted by allegations of deceit and influenced by behind-the-scenes forces. The credibility of a government formed under such circumstances would likely be severely compromised.

The implications of this situation would extend significantly to the financial realm for the prospective government. International entities such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may be reluctant to provide loans and other financial assistance to the incoming government. Given the daunting economic challenges ahead, the PML-N-PPP coalition would likely struggle to address these substantial economic issues, let alone resolve them comprehensively.

Moreover, the formation of a PML-N-PPP government would mean it assumes power over the majority party in the National Assembly, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Consequently, the majority party would find itself excluded from both government positions and the opportunity to lead. As a result, the legitimacy of the next National Assembly, should the PML-N-PPP coalition form a government, would be in question. Furthermore, this government would face the most formidable opposition in Pakistan’s history, making it nearly impossible to formulate robust legislation and policies urgently needed.

The fear of public unrest would likely hinder the next government from making tough decisions, such as imposing additional taxes, raising utility charges, or increasing prices of essential goods and medicines. The memory of the PML-N-PPP coalition’s previous governance, which brought hardship to the lives of Pakistanis from April 2022 to September 2023, has left a bitter legacy. As a result, the current political and economic crises, often described as a “polycrisis,” seem to be escalating. In such a critical situation, analysts argue that the entire civil society, including political parties, must unite to break the deadlock and find a way forward.