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ISSN 2816-1971

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  • Neel Vanvari

Pakistan after the 2024 election: Limping from Crisis to Crisis

The results of the Pakistani elections have left the country's political system in a mess, with no one party winning a majority and the military's influence hanging over the system, compounding the issues facing an already fragile country. What is next for this nuclear-armed state?


Image credits: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

After an election that was described by one observer as “the biggest political upset” in the country’s history, Pakistan is faced with a dual political and economic crisis. The election result produced a hung parliamentwith none of the three major parties winning enough seats to govern alone. Candidates aligned with former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won 93 seats, making these PTI backed independents the largest bloc in the National Assembly. The Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) headed by the Sharif dynasty won 75 seats. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) headed by another political dynasty, the Bhuttos, won 54 seats.


The political crisis stems from the fact that the election itself is viewed by many as being “rigged” by Pakistan’s powerful military against former Imran Khan and the PTI, with protests against the result taking place across Pakistan after the election. Scholars argue that the PMLN had the tacit support of the militarythroughout the election campaign. Although the military favoured Khan and he won the 2018 election with the backing of the military, Khan was removed from office once he lost the military’s support in 2022.  


This perception that the election was rigged has only intensified due to several factors such as an internet blackout on election day, a ban on opinion polls in the lead-up to the election and a long delay in the declaration of the results. In the aftermath of the election, a senior election official in the province of Punjab publicly admitted to rigging the election and changing votes so that independents backed by the PTI lost seats to other parties which the PTI was otherwise on course to win. Consequently, this has led the EU, the UK and the US to question the legitimacy of the election and whether it was conducted in a free and fair environment.


Since Khan was removed from office following a vote of no confidence in August 2022, the party has faced a crackdown orchestrated by Pakistan’s military. After falling out of favour with the military, Khan himself has been arrested and handed lengthy prison sentences on multiple charges ranging from corruption to terrorism. His party has effectively been hollowed out, with party leaders either quitting politics, being arrested or switching sides after being pressured by the military.


The PTI was faced with an additional hurdle when the Election Commission banned the party from using its party symbol of a cricket bat which forced its candidates to run as independents. In a country where 40% of the population is unable to read, party symbols play a crucial role as voters use these symbols to identify the party that they wish to vote for. Despite this crackdown and primarily on account of being supported by a large number of young first-time voters, PTI backed independents won more seats than the PMLN and the PPP.


However, these PTI backed independents will head for the opposition benches as the traditional dynastic parties, the PMLN and the PPP, have agreed to form a coalition government with the military’s blessing. Along with several other small parties, the PPP has agreed to nominate Shehbaz Sharif of the PMLN as Prime Minister in the National Assembly.

Despite the formation of this coalition government, there is little to suggest that this may resolve the current political crisis in Pakistan. Given the distribution of seats in the National Assembly, the incoming government may be a ‘minimum winning coalition’ where the PMLN will need every political party in coalition to vote for the bills proposed by the government.


Theory suggests that such minimum winning coalitions give smaller coalition partners significant ‘blackmail potential’ vis-à-vis the party leading the coalition. In effect, the smaller parties could ask the PMLN for significant concessions or ‘goodies’- such as executive or legislative offices, the inclusion of certain policies from their individual manifestos into the government’s agenda, special funding for certain regions or blocking some of PMLN’s campaign policies- as the price of joining this coalition.


This may be especially the case for the PPP which has effectively emerged as the kingmaker and has already indicated that it would seek offices such as the presidency as well as the speakerships of both houses of parliament. To be clear, the effectiveness of this PMLN-led government will be determined by the extent to which the PPP and the minor parties exert this blackmail potential and the concessions which they extract from the PMLN.

Beyond the coalition calculus, the incoming government may also be hamstrung due to the perception of ‘mandate uncertainty’. With the election result shrouded in controversy as it seen as being ‘rigged’ and ‘illegitimate’, the incoming government may be viewed as lacking a legitimate democratic mandate to govern. The weakness of the incoming government may be further exacerbated if it is continued to be perceived as being installed by the military as opposed to being elected by the people.


The complexity of this political crisis may also simultaneously make the economic crisis more acute. Pakistan’s economy is on life support and the country narrowly avoided a default last year. Inflation hit 28% in January 2024 and Pakistan’s low foreign exchange reserves of $8 billion USD may only be sufficient to pay for 6 weeks of imports.


Pakistan’s tax to GDP ratio is a mere 9.2% and as one economist noted, the entire tax revenue of the federal government is exhausted to the extent that the Pakistani state is running on a ‘perpetual deficit’. Pakistan also has significant loans and it needs to pay back at least $28 billion USD of loans in the next two years alone. Observers note that in order to address these critical economic challenges and to service existing debt, Pakistan may need to borrow even more money. With existing financial support running out in April 2024, Pakistan is faced with a strict deadline for renegotiating additional aid with the IMF.


However, research suggests that coalition governments are often associated with ‘lesser economic efficiency’ as coalitions will “strike less efficient bargains”. On account of several veto-players and multiple electoral interests of different parties at stake, coalition governments may lead to higher government spending, larger budget deficits and higher levels of public debt.


Hence, the incoming government may have to swallow the bitter pill of implementing stringent economic measures-such as slashing spending- to restore Pakistan’s economic credibility in the eyes of the IMF and international investors. However, such measures will have a significant political cost for political parties, and this may affect the extent to which the incoming government is willing to implement them.


Although the election may have made the prevailing political and economic crises in Pakistan more acute, one scholar argues that the result benefits the military, at least in the short term. The military’s wish of the PMLN receiving a larger mandate may have been dashed. Nonetheless, this coalition signifies that the military will continue to remain a crucial veto-player in Pakistan’s politics. A weak, ineffective coalition which is viewed as being illegitimate and is unable to neither address Pakistan’s economic woes nor last the whole five-year term may still result in the military being the ultimate power-broker in Pakistan’s politics, at least in the short term.

 

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Authors

Neel Vanvari is research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, and PhD candidate in political science at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

 

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