No good choices ahead for Pakistan after elections - Hindustan Times
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No good choices ahead for Pakistan after elections

ByHindustan Times
Feb 16, 2024 09:38 AM IST

This article is authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi

Never has there been such a dramatic election in Pakistan, with results being greeted with cheers at one moment and tears in the other as winning candidates found their huge majorities wiped out in the few hours. Yet, the roughly 60 million voters who participated, overturned the schemes and manipulation of the ‘establishment’ in an exercise that ironically, showcased the power of democracy in a state that is anything but.

A woman cast her ballot at a polling station during Pakistan's national elections in Islamabad on February 8.(AFP)
A woman cast her ballot at a polling station during Pakistan's national elections in Islamabad on February 8.(AFP)

The reverberations of the elections are far from over, though an expected coalition has been announced which brings together Sharif’s party, Bhutto’s, and the virtual king maker (yet again) being the Muttahida Quami Movement with its 17 seats. To this group has been added a bunch of smaller parties like the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid) headed by the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, a party that has run with the army for decades, as well as Balochistan Awami Party, also an army backed group which managed to stave off total defeat with one seat, could together get a ‘majority’ of 152 seats, which together with a percentage of the reserved seats could bring 169 in the house. Note that each of the major parties were sniping at each other just a day earlier, hardly calculated to raise the people’s confidence. Asif Ali Zardari is likely to be announced as president, and again expectedly, Shahbaz Sharif will be the prime minister, if all goes well till February 29, when the new government is to be sworn in.

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That is under challenge as Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has flatly refused to cooperate with any of these parties, castigating them again as a bunch of thieves. With its stunning 92 seats, could bring in other independents (9). It has announced cooperation with a group of religious parties (its traditional allies) including the Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen Pakistan, a Shia party that could provide the ‘cover’ needed to form a government. It is worth remembering that the PTI itself is not banned, only it’s leaders and election symbol. Talks are also on with the Jamaat e Islami to form governments in Punjab and the Centre. Meanwhile there are a clutch of seats for which are up for litigation by the PTI, which are yet to be decided. The end result is that a large slice of voters will feel cheated out of their votes, particularly since it is more than apparent that had Khan been free, he would have won hands down. It could be argued that Pakistanis are accustomed to their ‘establishment’ playing ducks and drakes in the political arena. But this time, the level of disillusionment with the army is justifiably huge. And there are other issues involved that could lead to further anger.

Meanwhile, trouble is also expected at provincial level. Consider that the National Assembly will see at least one province of Khyber Pakthtunkhwa is entirely PTI controlled, and that too for the third time. The province which borders Afghanistan has 45 National Assembly seats. The PTI has always had a ‘friendly’ relationship to the Taliban and its blood brothers, and has been arguing for a peace agreement with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). That is now likely to go ahead, with concessions likely to be a bone of contention with the centre which is likely to undercut it as is their practice). The attack on a highly respected politician Mohsin Dawar, is likely to further roil the waters against Islamabad. Karachi will now be MQM controlled which is also likely to fall foul of the Sindh parties. Balochistan, where there has been the most election related violence, remains unrepresented though the quisling Balochistan Awami Party – to which the caretaker Prime Minister Kakar belongs - was wiped out. As results were announced, political unrest has already begun. Political disarray is a given, as the PTI gets ready for its mass protests, which will equally certainly be followed by mass arrests. More trouble, unless the government gives in to Imran Khan’s ‘reaching out’. That’s a bit of a catch22 situation. An Imran Khan free on the streets is likely to be greeted as a returning hero, overturning plans to keep a wobbly coalition in place.

In terms of the economy, the much touted ‘reforms’ lead by the army through the Strategic Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC), which essentially involves selling off most major state assets like Pakistan steel mills and Karachi port wharfs among others – will press ahead, but is likely to slow down in the face of competing ideologies of the two parties. As experts explains, the PPP will never (publicly) agree to this, since it has a major presence in labour unions. Other harsh decisions – like pegging of the Pakistani rupee to the dollar at a realistic rate – and ways to settle a $100 billion external debt burden, will all have to be made quickly to fulfil the requirements of the International Monetary Fund so that it can secure the final $1 billion tranche before this particular programme expires in mid-April. All these will be deeply unpopular. It seems the PTI’s decision not to ally with such a coalition may be the smart one in the short term.

In terms of foreign policy, the ‘Orwellian silence’ of the Biden Administration on the more than apparent election rigging, and the later statement by its spokesperson seemed to show either complete disinterest in an administration that is firefighting, but more likely the traditional preference for the Pakistan army to remain in control of sensitive issues like counterterrorism, rather than a quarrelsome coalition, or even a super powerful leader focusing on national concerns rather than what Washington wants. Chinese officials only condemned the violence during elections, and wished their ‘all-weather strategic partner and iron-clad friend’ well. But though Beijing will continue to deal strategically with Pakistan – witness the signing of another agreement to build Chashma-5 nuclear reactor – its business engagement with Pakistan will remain on a slow-burn till Pakistan implements the reforms mandated by the IMF. A sinking economy is not in it’s interest, but a weak political centre is. That leave the army free – as always – to give in to Chinese demands. For India, the key element was that Nawaz Sharif for the second time, called for good relations with neighbours. That such a statement would have reflected the views of Rawalpindi goes without a doubt. The trouble is that a newly elected government in Delhi is going to again ask whether a formal dialogue is even worth the trouble, when the leadership is riven with divisions. Expect quiet back channels and Track-2 dialogues to continue. The possibility remains that Pakistan that may slip into a civil war-like situation, but hawks waiting for a break up are likely to be disappointed. States don’t really break up that easily unless there is specific prodding from outside, as in the former Yugoslavia. But as the state’s ability to control its territory dissolves, it’s the non-State extreme radicals – who have been denied any representation by a discerning Pakistani voter – who may seize the spaces offered. That’s no good for anyone, either inside or outside the country. No good scenarios ahead, not even for the army which is going to find its clout steadily reducing as chaos continues.

This article is authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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