Elections are the only way out of Pakistan’s political crisis but they won’t solve every problem
With the dissolution of assemblies in two major provinces and one third of the national assembly seats now vacant in Pakistan, options for the shacky coalition government at the center are running out. It has become increasingly difficult for the ruling alliance to stay in power. The pressure is on to call general elections.
With coming provincial polls and by-election on some 90 national assembly seats it would make it extremely difficult for the government of prime minister Shahbaz Sharif to govern. It is unprecedented that elections will be taking place in only two provinces. An anomalous situation has been created that could have serious implications for the political and electoral process.
Pakistan’s politics took a dramatic turn this month when the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KP) governments- both ruled by the PTI led by former prime minister Imran Khan- dissolved the provincial assemblies setting in motion the process of election in these two provinces. It all started with the PTI-PML-Q government winning the critical vote of confidence in the Punjab Assembly.
It has been a huge loss of face for the opposition alliance led by PML-N, which till the last moment, was expecting some defections within the provincial government’s ranks. The PTI won the battle of nerves by getting back disgruntled members. It has left the PML-N led alliance that controls the central government with no other choice but to prepare for elections in the provinces that are to be held within three months.
The dissolution decision has not come as a surprise. It was part of the move by the PTI to increase pressure on the central government to hold nation-wide elections. Meanwhile, Imran Khan also announced that his party would return to the national assembly to force prime minister Shahbaz Sharif to prove his majority in the house.
It was a reversal of his earlier decision to quit the assembly. The PTI legislators had resigned en masse following the ouster of their government through a no confidence vote in March last year. But the speaker had refused to accept the collective letter citing the constitutional requirement that each member has to individually submit his or her resignation. The PTI had refused to do so and has abstained from the house.
Most believe that only the elections could help bring some political stability. But there is no indication yet of rival parties coming together to bring down the political temperature and enter into a serious discussion about the election schedule.
But within hours of Khan’s announcement the speaker accepted the resignations of 80 of 140 PTI legislators in negation to his own ruling. The resignations of others are expected to be approved soon. The speaker’s decision exposed the vulnerability of the ruling collation. It was apparent that Khan’s decision to go back to the Assembly was to bring down a shaky coalition government with a razor thin majority.
With such a large number of seats vacant, a truncated assembly has already lost its credibility. It has seriously hampered the central government’s capacity to govern. But the prime minister insists that the house will complete its term that ends in August this year.
Neither side is willing to back down from their rigid position and agree to a mechanism for simultaneous elections in the provinces and the center. While Imran Khan is adamant about bringing down the entire edifice, the ruling coalition is not willing to concede that it has already lost credibility and to agree to early general elections.
With the economy in dire straits, the situation is becoming increasingly untenable for the beleaguered dispensation. With the prospect of sovereign default staring us in the face, the outlook for the economy seems extremely grim. The fractious coalition does not seem to have the capability to take the country out of its difficulties. The collapse of the economy would have far-reaching political implications for the country and the democratic process.
The perpetual state of confrontation among political forces and the virtual collapse of state institutions have pushed the country close to anarchy. Notwithstanding the military leadership’s pledge to stay out of civilian affairs, the shadow of the security establishment continues to dominate the political scene. There is always the danger of the military getting sucked into the political fray as the crisis deepens.
Most observers believe that only the elections could help bring some political stability. But there is no indication yet of the rival parties coming together to bring down the political temperature and enter into a serious discussion about the election schedule. The absence of an accord could further deepen the political crisis.
A fledgling government with little credibility cannot take tough but necessary actions to salvage a falling economy. The elections may not resolve the myriad challenges faced by the country, but the continuing political uncertainty will be disastrous.
— Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year.