Will instability be Pakistan’s political hallmark?

Will instability be Pakistan’s political hallmark?

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Following Pakistan’s general election on February 8, the federal and four provincial governments are expected to be formed in Pakistan latest by the beginning of March. The Constitution of Pakistan requires that its newly elected National Assembly, which elects the Prime Minister (PM), be convened within 21 days after the polls.

There is no clear winner in the National Assembly making the formation of the federal government a highly complex affair. While Imran Khan-supported independent members form the largest group, the rival Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) emerged as the second and third largest political parties in the assembly. None of the three political parties is able to secure a majority and form government without the help of at least one of the other two parties. 

A stable government is a highly desirable outcome of an election anywhere, but it is absolutely critical for a country like Pakistan which was saved from economic default just five months ago by a last-minute short-term injection of dollars by the IMF after repeated pleas for help. With the political landscape appearing uncertain, the prospects of political stability look increasingly elusive.

The new government may have to announce further belt-tightening measures under the IMF program and that may prove to be the proverbial last straw. 

- Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

It was being hoped both inside the country and abroad that the government formed after the election would be stable enough to take difficult and, in many cases, unpopular decisions needed to fix the economic mess in the country. The IMF and other international agencies would support Pakistan if it is willing and able to undertake long-term economic reforms. Sadly, the highly-anticipated political stability may not materialize for a variety of reasons. 

Since the electorate has returned a split mandate in the national assembly, the government formation will be an uphill task. PTI refuses to form a coalition with any of the two other parties. The only feasible option is that PML-N and PPP form a coalition. While negotiations between the two parties are in progress, PPP is reportedly seeking top state offices in return for supporting the PML-N led coalition government which PML-N may not find acceptable. If the stalemate continues and a Prime Minister can’t be elected, the President may have to dissolve the assembly and call for fresh elections, further exasperating the instability.

Even if a coalition federal government is formed, it will in all probability be a weak government dependent on the whims of coalition partners. PML-N and PPP have policy differences too. For example, PPP opposes the de-nationalization of state-owned enterprises like the national carrier PIA whereas PML-N seems all set to privatize such entities as part of its economic reform agenda. Decision-making in such a government will be no less than a nightmare.

More critically, the future federal government, in all likelihood, will leave PTI, the largest political party — in terms of votes received and seats won – out of government. PTI, which has proven to be one of the most effective parties in pulling crowds to the streets in the past and paralysing cities, has announced protests both inside the legislatures and out against the alleged rigging in the election. This factor alone will be enough to de-stabilize the future government as the streets may be choked and legislatures rendered unable to pass critical legislation.

It appears almost certain that PTI will control the next provincial government of northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Since PTI and PML-N may not be able to establish a working relationship, a tug-of-war will ensue between the federal and KP governments leading to continuing instability. KP has the historical claim against the federal government on the profit of hydro-electric projects located in the province and this dispute may escalate in the days to come. Such a center-province disagreement may also impact negotiations with the IMF on the next agreement. 

People have suffered a great deal from rampant inflation, unemployment and prohibitive cost of living. So far, the discontentment did not spill out on the streets in the hope that the new government may be able to provide some relief. The new government may have to announce further belt-tightening measures under the IMF program and that may prove to be the proverbial last straw. 

While the country needs stability for at least five years and even beyond, the next election to create a stable business climate, attract domestic and foreign investment and focus on reform agendas to increase exports and tax revenue under the watchful eyes of the IMF, instability seems to be writ large as the PTI announced a nation-wide protest movement. Many regional parties with sizeable street power also plan to join the protests or organize their own. While the provincial governments may complete their five-year term, the prospects of the federal government and the national assembly doing the same don’t seem very bright. 

- The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat; Youtube: @abmpildat 

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