The dissolution of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial assemblies has plunged Pakistan in uncharted terrain. It raises the key question of whether delaying general elections has now become an untenable option. The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government at the center remains adamantly opposed to calling elections earlier than when Parliament completes its full term in August. Encouraged by developments in Punjab, opposition leader Imran Khan has stepped up pressure for snap elections. He has thrown another challenge to the coalition government by threatening efforts to press Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to seek a vote of confidence from the National Assembly. He is considering asking his party legislators to resume joining the country’s lower house, from which they had earlier resigned. Party leaders said legal advice was being sought toward this end. Khan also reportedly told his party that PTI could consider returning to the Assembly to discuss arrangements for an interim set up that is constitutionally mandated to be in place to supervise elections. But the situation took another twist when resignations of 35 PTI members were suddenly accepted by the NA Speaker. PTI leaders cast this as a panicky move by the government.
In the light of these developments, uncertainty prevails in the country with the situation becoming increasingly unpredictable each passing day. If dissolution of the assemblies of the country’s two key provinces is not followed by general elections it could create more political confusion, even chaos. It would mean that once provincial elections are held in Punjab and KP and lead to governments being installed there for a five-year term, then when general elections are eventually held it would not be under neutral caretaker administrations in these provinces. This would be unprecedented in Pakistan’s history in which national and provincial elections have always taken place at the same time.
Despite the coalition government’s refusal to meet Imran Khan’s demand for elections, the widespread expectation that they would likely be called sooner rather than later has driven political parties into campaign mode
Meanwhile, local government elections in urban Sindh, including Karachi and Hyderabad, have produced political controversy rather than an outcome accepted by all political parties. MQM had boycotted the election in protest against delimitation changes and demanded postponement of the polls. The Election Commission however rejected this demand. Elections were held on schedule but saw a very low turnout, casting a shadow over its credibility. The PPP secured the most seats but fell short of a majority. Other contesting parties, notably PTI and Jamaat e Islami, cried foul with Khan alleging electoral fraud by the PPP. MQM accused the PPP of “pre-poll rigging” by administrative changes the PPP-run provincial government had earlier carried out. These disputes were another reminder of how election results are no longer accepted by all contestants as fair and suggested – ominously – that the outcomes of provincial and national elections could also meet the same fate.
Despite the coalition government’s refusal to meet Imran Khan’s demand for elections, the widespread expectation that they would likely be called sooner rather than later has driven political parties into campaign mode. But it has also laid bare the challenges most of them face in the months leading to general elections. PTI’s organizational weakness at the grass roots level was exposed by the modest gains it made in the Sindh local elections, in which it was expected to do much better. It still has to find the means to translate the obvious popularity of its leader into actual electoral strength. PML-N, on the other hand, seems to be riven by deep internal divisions. Its factional and organizational disarray contributed to its rout in several by-elections last year. Its conduct during the recent episode of the Punjab chief minister’s trust vote, ended in a huge setback for the party and showed how the provincial party had become rudderless and directionless. The setback in its provincial stronghold in fact suggests that the days of PML-N’s dominance in Punjab may be coming to a close.
Meanwhile, continuing political turmoil in the country has meant that governance both at the center and the provinces seems to now be on hold. This at a time when the country is faced with multiple challenges especially when the economy is teetering on the brink of insolvency and there is a resurgence in terrorist violence. Political bickering and confrontations rather than policy actions have become the order of the day. Uncertainty rules and continues to exact a heavy toll on the economy. If the present political chaos continues, it will further darken prospects for the ailing economy and worsen the plight of ordinary people facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis. Political and electoral considerations have already urged the PDM government to demur over taking actions required for the IMF to conclude the ninth review in order to resume its loan program to Pakistan. This delay has intensified economic uncertainty and fueled speculation about the possibility of a sovereign default on the country’s external obligations in view of its rapidly depleting foreign exchange reserves which have sunk to a new low. More political turbulence and instability would increase the risk of an economic collapse. This should urge political leaders to sit together, agree on urgent measures to salvage the economy and come to a consensus on when general elections should be held.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha