Aftermath of Pakistan’s controversial election 


Aftermath of Pakistan’s controversial election 

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The February 8 elections in Pakistan delivered a divided mandate with no party able to secure a majority. This has made government formation a somewhat arduous process. Both Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which won the largest number of seats in the National Assembly and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, which came second, sought to forge alliances to secure the required number of seats for a majority. Negotiations and bargaining intensified ahead of the NA meeting which has to take place before the constitutional deadline of March 29. 

PML-N and PPP held several rounds of talks on forming a coalition government and after days of tough negotiating, announced a power-sharing deal. At a joint press conference, their leaders announced they had adequate numbers to form a government. The PPP would support PML-N in forming a government headed by Shehbaz Sharif and in return, PML-N would support the candidature of Asif Zardari as president. The PPP also secured commitments for the offices of Senate chairman and governorship of two provinces. There was silence on whether the PPP would join the federal cabinet but press reports indicated it was disinclined to do so. 

Meanwhile, PTI announced its elected candidates will join the Sunni Ittehad Council, a religious party, to enable it to claim reserved seats for women and minorities, which it would otherwise not be entitled to as it lost its status as a political party by a ruling of the Election Commission of Pakistan. But this is not going to help the party reach the number needed for a majority. 

The wheeling and dealing over alliance building and power sharing took place in the backdrop of protests against ballot fraud across the country by many political parties, especially PTI. Complaints of poll irregularities in several constituencies are being heard by the Election Commission of Pakistan and many petitions have also been filed in the Courts. Although claims of vote rigging have accompanied almost every election in the past, what is unusual this time is the number of parties making these accusations, from one end of the country to the other. Calls have been growing for an independent audit of the election results by human rights organizations as well as an election watchdog. Calls have also been heard in the Senate for the resignation of the Chief Election Commissioner who is being held responsible for a disputed election.

The nation needs a healing touch after a bruising electoral battle and the nonstop political confrontation of recent years. 

Maleeha Lodhi

This makes the challenge a daunting one for the next government. It will have to ensure that complaints about vote rigging are fully investigated so that the credibility of elections is not left in doubt. Without doing that its own legitimacy will be in question. It will also have to address the deep polarization in the country by engaging, not isolating the opposition, and building consensus in Parliament. The nation needs a healing touch after a bruising electoral battle and the nonstop political confrontation of recent years. This should figure as a priority on the government’s agenda.

Without establishing a modicum of domestic peace and stability the government will not be able to deal with the most consequential challenge the country faces – an economy in serious crisis. This means the present environment of political tensions and turmoil has to give way to a calm and less fraught one. The government will need to quickly start negotiations with the IMF for a new, larger program given Pakistan’s heavy debt service obligations ahead and the current Stand-By Arrangement with the Fund coming to an end in April. But a fresh IMF deal should be part of a comprehensive home-grown plan to address the structural economic issues that lie at the root of the country’s perennial financial crises. The structural sources of persisting financial imbalances lie in a narrow and inequitable tax regime, limited export base, the energy sector’s circular debt, bankrupt public-sector enterprises, heavy regulatory burden, and low savings and investment. Unless all these issues are tackled, the country will not be able to escape from the trap of anaemic growth, high deficits, heavy borrowing, growing indebtedness, and soaring inflation. 

Only a competent economic team installed by the new government and a leadership committed to reform can undertake this crucial task. The appointment of a credible finance minister will be of utmost importance to build confidence among the business community, multilateral financial institutions and the country’s bilateral development partners. 

The election result has left control of the country’s four provinces in the hands of rival political parties. It means PML-N will run Punjab, PTI will govern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the PPP will be in control of Sindh and possibly Balochistan. This imposes the obligation on the central government to manage a federal polity in a consensual and accommodative way. This is especially important at a time of economic difficulty when competition over scarce resources can cause center-province frictions. 

Dealing purposefully with these challenges, among others, will require the government to avoid getting mired in confrontational politics and coercive actions against its opponents. This will involve a determined effort to break from an unedifying past, which has seen endless government-opposition confrontations and distracted from the task of governance. To create a stable and predictable environment, the government should aim to work democracy in a consensual way and show tolerance toward the opposition in and outside Parliament. Equally, the opposition should abjure destabilization tactics and disruptive behavior in acknowledgment of the fact that more political turmoil will produce no winners if it sends a fragile economy into meltdown. The coming weeks will show if political leaders are capable of putting the country’s interest before their own. 

– Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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