The new old order: Pakistan’s prospects for political stability are grim


The new old order: Pakistan’s prospects for political stability are grim

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Pakistan will have a new government in place by the end of the month following a controversial election that has dramatically altered the country’s political landscape. With no political party getting a majority, it will be a coalition rule led by former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). The party has emerged as the single largest bloc in the newly formed National Assembly after many independent members have jumped onto its bandwagon. 

In what is being described as the “new old order,” Asif Ali Zardari the top leader of Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) is set to return as the country’ president for the second time under a power sharing deal between the two parties. It is certainly not the outcome of the long-awaited polls one had expected. The new power arrangement cobbled together after intense negotiations backed by the all-powerful security establishment will be standing on shacky grounds. 

One is not sure whether the new administration could bring any political stability to a country in deep turmoil. The elections have resulted in a divided mandate with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by incarcerated former prime minister Imran Khan emerging as the single largest group despite the widespread allegations of poll rigging. Its candidates were elected as “independents” because the party has been denied of its position of being a parliamentary party. 

It seems that the PPP’s decision to keep itself out of the cabinet is a part of its strategy to have power without responsibility. But it leaves the future setup in a precarious situation.

- Zahid Hussain

In order to keep itself relevant in the power game, the PTI has decided to merge its parliamentary party with a religious group, the Sunni Ittehad Council. This also seems to be a part of its tactics to get its share of some 70 reserve seats, thus keeping the group in the contention for power. Surely, the party doesn’t have any chance to form the government on its own as it has refused to make an alliance with any other party. 

Yet the PTI’s formidable presence in the National Assembly could present a constant challenge to a prospective PML-N-led fragile coalition of some half a dozen disparate political parties with diverse political agendas. While the PPP, which is the third largest group in the house has agreed to support the Sharif-led alliance, it refuses to be a part of the cabinet. This is indeed a bizarre situation. 

Since the PPP’s support is critical for the survival of the future political setup, the party leadership has extracted maximum advantage. It has managed to get the key constitutional positions, including the post of president for lending support to the Sharif government. Meanwhile, the PPP has maintained its control over the country’s second largest province, Sindh, and is also poised to lead a coalition government in Balochistan, raising its stakes in the power game. 

It seems that the PPP’s decision to keep itself out of the cabinet is a part of the strategy to have power without responsibility. But it leaves the future setup in a precarious situation as the PPP could pull the rug from under a fragile alliance at any time. It would make it extremely difficult for a minority government to deliver. It’s evident that a weak civilian setup would be completely dependent on the military for its survival. 

Curiously, Nawaz Sharif who was originally nominated by the PML-N as its candidate for prime minister decided to stand down after his party failed to win a majority in the polls. In fact, the party’s entire election campaign had revolved around his return to power for a fourth term. It is apparent that he doesn’t want to lead a weak coalition government. 

Therefore, the younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, who has worked well with the military as well as other political parties in the past, is considered the right choice to lead the future coalition government. He was prime minister for 16 months after the fall of the Imran Khan government in April 2022. 

Nawaz Sharif has, however, made sure that the mantle of Punjab chief minister goes to his daughter and heir apparent Maryam Nawaz, thus making sure that the family’s stranglehold over the country’s province continues. Being the largest single party in the provincial assembly, the PML-N had no difficulty in forming the government in the province. 

What is most problematic however, is the issue of different political parties ruling the provinces. Most important is the PTI’s landslide victory in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Given the ongoing confrontation, it will not be easy for the PTI-led government in the province to work with the PML-N administration in Islamabad.

This will make it extremely difficult for a fragile coalition government to deliver on the critical problems related to governance, economy and internal security. The election with its questionable legitimacy has left the county more fragmented and the future prospective for the country doesn’t look very promising. 

- 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. Twitter: @hidhussain

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