By Sarral Sharma*
Amid reports and allegations of election rigging and other irregularities by the opposition political parties, Pakistan’s cricketer-turned-politician and Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, Imran Khan, emerged victorious in the highly controversial general election in Pakistan in July 2018. He will be crowned the next Wazir-e-Azam (prime minister) of Pakistan on 11 August.
Although the PTI emerged as the single largest party in the National Assembly (NA) with 115 seats of the total 270, it has not yet managed to achieve the majority figure of 136. Consequently, Khan will require support from other smaller parties and some independent candidates to form the new government.
PTI’s Performance in the Provinces
PTI’s electoral performance in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provincial assemblies came as a bit of surprise. Its mandate in Punjab and Balochistan came on the lines of pre-poll projections. While PTI retained a comfortable majority in the KP assembly, it is currently making desperate efforts to form the government in Punjab and Balochistan with the help of other regional parties and independent candidates. In Sindh, PTI surprisingly replaced the Mutahhida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and assumed the position of the second largest party.
In the fierce battle for Punjab, ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) emerged as the single largest party, winning 129 seats of the total 295, with a slight edge over PTI’s 123. Neither party managed to achieve the majority mark of 149. Clearly, the 28 independent candidates, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) with seven seats, and other smaller parties will decide the outcome in Punjab. PTI made deep inroads in the Sharifs’ home-turf in the 2018 election, winning majority seats in north and south Punjab, and made a significant dent in the central region. The south had already deserted the Sharifs after strong prompting by the military establishment; and the shrine-dominated central Punjab was convinced to abandon the PML-N over issues such as the Khatam-e-Nabuwat clause controversy. Furthermore, terror outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) were politically mainstreamed to cut into PML-N’s right-wing votes in Punjab. Additionally, the widespread participation of the Sunni Barelvi outfit, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLY), in the 2018 election reduced the PML-N’s chances of winning.
Factors responsible for such a mandate in Punjab include Khan’s anti-corruption movement against the Sharifs; the military establishment’s alleged role in arm-twisting the ‘electables’ in PTI’s favour; and local governance issues in the province. Pakistan’s military establishment might help PTI form the government in Sharif’s bastion by pressurising the victorious independent candidates. That would be a severe jolt for the PML-N given how it is already voted out at the Centre.
The PTI retained its majority in the KP provincial assembly with an overwhelming mandate. In the final tally, the party won 66 seats of the total 97, whereas the main opposition parties—the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal Pakistan (MMA), and the Awami National Party (ANP)—won merely 10 and five seats respectively. Despite several allegations of corruption, intra-party differences and other governance related shortcomings, PTI managed to win a popular mandate in a province infamous for its anti-incumbency pattern of voting. The ANP and other Pashtun parties could not capitalise on the recent Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), and the supposed anti-incumbency factor against PTI was clearly ruled out after the results.
In the Sindh provincial assembly, PTI won 23 seats of the total 130, emerging second after the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) which won 73 seats. PTI thus replaced the MQM-P which won 16 seats. More importantly, in the polls to the National Assembly in Sindh, PTI dethroned MQM-P in its bastion, Karachi, by winning 14 NA seats of the total 21, compared to merely one seat they had won in the 2013 general elections. Factors such as the fragmented political representation of the Mohajir community; MQM-London Chief Altaf Hussain’s call for election boycott; PTI candidates’ local campaigning; and Khan’s popularity could have worked in PTI’s favour. PTI’s performance in Sindh is a wake-up call for the ruling PPPP and an existential threat for MQM-P in future elections.
In Balochistan provincial assembly, PTI won only four seats of the total 51 but struck a post poll alliance with the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP)—the single largest party in Balochistan which won 15 seats—to form a coalition government in the province. BAP, which also won four NA seats, has promised to support PTI at the Centre. Interestingly, it has been alleged that both these parties were supported by the military establishment. Nonetheless, due to the fragmented mandate, it is still unclear as to who will form the government in Balochistan. Other smaller parties such as MMA, Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M), Balochistan National Party-Awami (BNP-A) and Hazara Democratic Party (HDP) have won nine, six, three and two seats respectively. Despite their ideological differences, these parties may join hands to claim majority in the provincial assembly. Moreover, four independent candidates who won too might play a deciding role in the coming days.
Challenges for the New Government
PTI ran a successful anti-corruption election campaign to dethrone the PML-N government in the 2018 election. Among other factors, Khan’s popularity among the youth; his forward-looking vision of the ‘naya (new) Pakistan’; and the alleged involvement of Pakistan’s military establishment possibly led to Khan’s victory. As he prepares to take charge as prime minister, he will need to go beyond election rhetoric to address Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy issues.
On the political front, the PTI government’s foremost challenge would be to prove its majority in the parliament, and more importantly, to sustain the coalition setup. Secondly, in September 2018, the new dispensation is scheduled to elect the country’s new president in consultation with the opposition. Main opposition parties such as PML-N, PPP, MMA and ANP have already agreed to form a new political alliance in the NA to effectively counter the PTI-led government. The new government could face hurdles while passing crucial bills in the parliament due to such a coalition. However, Khan’s proximity to the military establishment may work in his government’s favour to pull the strings of the opposition parties in a crisis like situation, at least in the initial few months.
Furthermore, the country is facing a dire economic situation with shrinking foreign reserves, a free falling currency, and a gaping trade deficit. Khan’s strategy to address these pressing issues will become clear only after the new cabinet is formed. In the current scenario, Pakistan may seek US$ 10-15 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, this might not come easy given how the IMF could demand in exchange an implementation of a reforms agenda that includes a privatisation programme and revamping of the tax infrastructure. Furthermore, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned that there is “no rationale” for a potential IMF bailout to pay off Chinese loans for Pakistan. In such a situation, Pakistan might have to seek more loans from China.
In addition to domestic issues, Khan’s government will face multi-pronged foreign policy challenges such as balancing relations with China and the US; addressing the Afghanistan issue; and maintaining the status quo with India while simultaneously attempting to make the Kashmir as core issue. Moreover, the new government will possibly have to take action against some Pakistan-based terror outfits to negotiate its exit from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) ‘grey list’.
China will remain the first foreign policy priority for the new government. Islamabad will continue to rely on Beijing for diplomatic, economic and military support for the next five years. Khan has even envisioned following China’s development model at a time when the Pakistan-US relationship is at a new low. Nonetheless, the new government in Islamabad will make efforts to reach out to the Trump administration. Still, contentious issues such as terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s strategic reliance on China, and its “brotherly” relations with Iran could complicate matters.
In South Asia, Khan’s government may prioritise its relations with Afghanistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has already invited Khan to Afghanistan and the latter has reportedly accepted the invitation—suggesting that Khan will visit Kabul in his first foreign visit as prime minister. It is conceivable that the two leaders may work towards improving Afghanistan-Pakistan relations during the initial months of the new dispensation in Islamabad. On India, Khan will continue to follow the status quo and may not repeat his predecessor Nawaz Sharif’s ‘mistake’ of ‘cosying up’ with New Delhi. Nevertheless, a meeting between Khan and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi could take place on the sidelines of a multilateral summit.
Overall, parliamentary arithmetic could complicate matters for the new government. Decisions on contentious issues may be delayed as the opposition parties may raise questions about rigging allegations and other irregularities during the elections, both in parliament and on the streets. If that happens, it will be a deja vu moment for Imran Khan who initiated widespread protests in 2013, alleging rigging in 2013 general elections. Nevertheless, with the possible backing of the country’s powerful military establishment, Khan might manage to tide over the opposition’s attempts at least for the time being.
Researcher, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS)