And finally, it’s done. Despite persistent doubts, the elections did indeed transpire on the 8th of February. However, this undertaking has plunged the nation into yet another whirlpool of crisis.
The PTI-backed independent candidates have seized the lead in the National Assembly, with the PML-N closely following. Nevertheless, Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N supremo, declared victory on the eve of the 9th of February during an address to a gathering of his workers. On this occasion he also announced the formation of an alliance with the Pakistan People’s Party. This declaration was somewhat awkward, given that the PML-N candidate, Ata Tarar – whose victory against the PPP Chairman, Bilawal Bhutto, has been challenged in the Lahore High Court on the 10th of February – made disparaging remarks against Bilawal, who is now being courted by his party leader.
Further discomfort arose after Khurshid Shah, a senior PPP leader, criticized Nawaz Sharif's premature announcement as a Prime Minister in waiting. Shah deemed it frivolous, stating that one ought not to declare oneself as the Prime Minister before engaging in negotiations for an alliance.
However, an alliance seems inevitable, as suggested by The Friday Times’ founding editor and ex-CM Punjab, Najam Sethi in his discussion with Karan Thapar on The Wire’s programming on YouTube. Sethi explained that PML-N would have to acquiesce to the demands of the PPP and possibly MQM-P, in a quid pro quo arrangement. On the other hand, PTI leaders are seeking a viable path in the absence of their own party platform. Whatever that may be, it appears improbable that they will be able to form a government – unless Barrister Gohar Khan decides to pursue his own agenda, contrary to the wishes of Imran Khan, who has emphatically stated that he will never align with the PPP or PML-N – a doubt raised by Dr. Hasnain Javed.
Whatever unfolded in the early hours of the 9th of February is another story. It will assuredly haunt the incoming government, particularly Nawaz Sharif, whose electoral victory has already been challenged in the Lahore High Court – even if he retains his seat in the National Assembly through the election tribunal, its legitimacy will perpetually be cast in doubt.
Considering Mian Nawaz Sharif's history of interactions with the establishment, it may not be prudent to dismiss any doubts. One might attempt to reassure themselves in this regard by suggesting that perhaps he has outgrown such tendencies.
The caretaker government, however, emerges unscathed from all this, as does the establishment.
The majority secured by PTI-independent candidates allows the caretakers and the establishment to assert that they did not tamper with the election results. Furthermore, the smooth voting process on election day, devoid of any major incidents of violence, is already a commendable achievement – and rightfully so. While the lead of the independents might be surprising for the establishment, they can exploit it to keep the forthcoming PML-N and PPP alliance in check. As for the prospect of a harmonious relationship with the establishment, Sethi remarked, “Both parties owe them (the establishment) more than a little bit for being returned to power.”
Returned to power – right! But, what does this entail for the economic and political stability of Pakistan?
By 'more than a little bit', it is meant depriving the PTI of their election symbol, sidelining Imran Khan from the elections, and granting them any freedom to operate. Now, the establishment might be feeling somewhat disillusioned with the choices they've made – this is what they were capable of despite everything! So, listen up, behave yourselves, or we'll release those 100 independents back to the PTI, and you can fend for yourselves.
Thus, there is no alternative but to comply, and comply they shall. But, for how long?
We must consider two narratives in the ensuing scenario – the PDM's 16-month history and Mian Nawaz Sharif's personal history with the establishment.
The establishment tolerated the lackluster economic performance of the 16-month PDM government for apparent reasons: Shahbaz Sharif in the PM house posed no significant challenges to the establishment, and Bilawal Bhutto as the foreign minister was preoccupied with foreign tours – virtually absent from the scene – presenting no threat to the establishment. Although the establishment was dismayed by their performance, they chose to bide their time until their tenure expired.
Thus came the caretakers, amid rumors of a two-year term. However, while Mohsin Naqvi performed commendably as the Punjab Chief Minister, Anwar-ul Haq Kakar was far from impressive as the Prime Minister. His cabinet of so-called technocrats, was even called B-class. There was virtually no notable progress on the economic front – their sole economic accomplishment was stagnation – meaning negligible growth, and hence the apparent stability of the dollar rate.
Considering Mian Nawaz Sharif's history of interactions with the establishment, it may not be prudent to dismiss any doubts. One might attempt to reassure themselves in this regard by suggesting that perhaps he has outgrown such tendencies. However, his anti-establishment rhetoric – 'vote ko izzat dou', and his outcry ‘mujhay kyun nikala’ – remains in recent memory.
Another significant outcome of the elections is the rejection of religious parties by voters nationwide – Maulana Fazalur Rehman’s JUI-F secured only 4 seats in the National Assembly. This perhaps reflects the sentiments of a considerable number of young voters who do not identify with religious politics.
Furthermore, he is not alone in this stance. His daughter, Maryam Nawaz, who espoused an aggressive anti-establishment stance, is poised to join the next government. On a lighter note, someone once quipped about Mian Sahib that he tends to grow weary of the Prime Minister's role rather swiftly. He seems compelled to clash with army chiefs to alleviate his boredom.
Another significant outcome of the elections is the rejection of religious parties by voters nationwide – Maulana Fazalur Rehman’s JUI-F secured only 4 seats in the National Assembly. This perhaps reflects the sentiments of a considerable number of young voters who do not identify with religious politics. Another factor could be the substantial participation of women voters, who tend to align themselves with more liberal politics, which they believe will afford them greater social and economic freedom – a sentiment praised by the European Union and foreign media observers of Pakistan’s elections.
At the same time, international media is levying sharp criticism against the credibility of the elections due to the Election Commission of Pakistan's (ECP) delay in announcing results and the discrepancies between the results broadcasted on television and those provided by the ECP. Will this lead to a situation reminiscent of the post-2013 elections, when the politics of protest and dharna dominated the national political landscape, or will it manifest in some other form of political crisis? If it does occur, what implications will it have for what was eagerly anticipated political stability? What will happen to the overarching economic challenges Pakistan is facing?
Once the numbers game is over, both the nation and the incoming government will begin to feel the repercussions of these questions.