The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Now that the elections and horse trading are over, can Pakistan move on from a divisive election?

On February 8, Pakistan’s general elections unfolded, decisively shaping the democratic topography of the nation with a coalition government and a formidable opposition presence. This electoral event established the National Assembly at the federal echelon, along with the provincial assemblies. Elected representatives from both government and opposition benches have since taken their oaths, inaugurating a structured governance framework at both the federal and provincial tiers, notwithstanding allegations of electoral manipulation. The respective legislative bodies have appointed executive leaders for the provinces, and in a significant political development, Shehbaz Sharif was elected prime minister by the National Assembly for a second term, with a decisive majority of 201 votes—a testament to the coalition’s strength.

The critical question now emerges: Will this freshly minted democratic milieu and its attendant political culture have the capacity to direct the future political discourse and solidify national stability?

The 2024 elections have heralded a coalition government with a strong opposition in the National Assembly, particularly in Punjab. The process of government formation at both the federal and provincial levels, spanning a five-year term, is nearly complete. It is a hallmark of Pakistan’s political progression that, since 2008, elections have been held at periodic intervals, enabling the formation of successive governments despite allegations of vote manipulation, the indirect sway of military power, and the advent of hybrid governance models.

The coalition, consisting of the Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPPP), Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN), and allied smaller factions, has deftly navigated the electoral landscape to form a government at the federal level and in three provinces, asserting its parliamentary might during the elections of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, where they garnered a resounding 201 votes in the prime ministerial election. Meanwhile, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-supported independent candidates under the banner of the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC)—a religious party—have established control over the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan.

Within the framework of power-sharing dynamics, the coalition has propelled Shehbaz Sharif to his second term as prime minister. Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the PPPP, has been nominated as a consensus candidate for the presidency, while the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-aligned Sunni Ittehad Council has put forth Mahmood Khan Achakzai—a Pakhtun nationalist Leader—as their contender against Zardari. The forthcoming presidential elections on March 9, for which the provincial assemblies and National Assembly constitute the electoral college, are expected to see Zardari reclaim the presidential mantle. Renowned for his unifying political tact and his commitment to parliamentary governance, Zardari, following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, reconfigured the political dynamics by redistributing power to the parliament and provinces, thereby laying the foundation for a more equitable federation.

Pakistan’s democratic landscape necessitates a well-articulated structure populated by ideologically driven political parties that promote political tolerance, inclusive governance, and a robust accountability framework. Yet, akin to the political traditions prevalent in many South Asian countries, Pakistan’s political theatre continues to be dominated by personality-led and dynastic politics. Despite the transformative potential of the elections, the polity has reinforced these dynastic and cult-driven narratives. The electorate’s preferences still orbit around these charismatic figures.

Consequently, political parties have increasingly relied on ‘electable’ elites rather than cultivating ideological roots. In Islamabad, it is speculated that the chairmanship of the Senate has been preordained for the Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians through power-sharing negotiations, but the final candidate may not necessarily align with initial expectations. Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar or Sadiq Sanjrani, both having held significant political positions, could potentially realign with the PPPP and assume the Senate’s leadership.

Despite intense electoral battles in Punjab between PTI-backed candidates and the Pakistan Muslim League, the Sharif family has witnessed a dilution of its political clout but has initiated a new chapter in dynastic politics by elevating Maryam Nawaz Sharif to the fore, marking her the first female Chief Minister of Punjab. Nawaz Sharif appears to have retreated from politics, seemingly prioritizing his daughter’s political future over his ambitions for a fourth premiership. The election has laid bare the political vulnerabilities of the Pakistan Muslim League in Punjab, which, despite seemingly advantageous conditions before the elections, failed to resonate with the youth and their aspirations for development.

Since 2008, a pattern has emerged in the electoral domain, with significant political entities gaining a regional characterization and driving the trend of coalition governments at the federal level. The Pakistan Muslim League has solidified its presence in Punjab, the PPPP has entrenched itself in Sindh, and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has maintained its grip over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since 2013. Historically, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has been a stronghold for religious political factions, but the PTI has managed to strategically usurp this constituency with its anti-American rhetoric, appealing to both religious sensibilities and Pakhtun nationalist sentiments.

The emergent democratic framework, characterized by a multiparty system and regionally anchored political factions, has led to provincial governments reflective of their territorial bases, with a Pakistan Muslim League-led coalition steering the central administration. The PTI-SIC coalition has emerged as a formidable opposition within the National Assembly, displaying a capacity for disruption during the body’s inaugural session. Ali Amin Gandapur, designated as the Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, projects a stern and unyielding disposition, likely to influence the intergovernmental dynamics on critical issues such as border management and counter-terrorism initiatives. In an atmosphere rife with opposition protests, Shehbaz Sharif extended an olive branch through a proposed charter of reconciliation, aiming to quell the entrenched political divide and pave the way for economic and political tranquility.

Ikram Ali, an alumnus of Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, holds a Master’s degree in History. With a rich tapestry of experience spanning over 15 years, Ikram has honed his expertise through collaborations with preeminent global organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), and Democracy Reporting International (DRI), advocating for comprehensive political and electoral reforms in Pakistan. His dedication to fostering governance excellence was further recognized in 2018 when he completed the prestigious South and Central Asia Legislative Fellows Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, affirming his role as a distinguished scholar and practitioner in the realm of democracy and governance.