Coalition Payoffs

Pakistan’s power-sharing format, combined with the politics of patronage, reduces the chances of government policies being held politically accountable by the parliament

Coalition Payoffs

Political theorists have been critical of absolute parliamentary majorities. For Aristotle, majoritarian democracy – where a political majority operates the governance – is a deviant constitution as it produces ‘a defective and perverted form’ of majoritarianism. Similarly, Arend Lijphart puts emphasis on consociational democracy, where a consensus is developed for sharing power between elites of divided political cultures.

In parliamentary regimes, the executive obtains its mandate from parliament, which also enjoys the constitutional power to dismiss the executive at any time through a no-confidence vote. When no single party attains a simple majority, it leads multiple parties to form a coalition government in parliamentary democracies. The norm of coalition government is practised in West European political cultures where proportional representation is practised to accommodate ethno-regional and socio-political cleavages in central legislatures. In the United Kingdom, the Cameron-Clegg coalition – a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – was the first coalition government since Churchill’s caretaker ministry in 1945. In India, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led coalition government successfully completed its five-year term from 1999 to 2004.

Apart from a peaceful transfer of power, the emergence of a split mandate resulting from the most twist-filled general elections of February 2024 has generated interesting trends in the electoral politics of Pakistan. Firstly, although parliamentary governance post-eighteenth amendment has technically passed Huntington’s test of ‘two connective turnovers’, the big question mark on the notion of free and fair elections suggests that democracy in Pakistan is far from consolidated. Secondly, it recorded an unprecedented political response to anti-democratic forces in the country. Thirdly, the emergence of a constantly evolving and increasingly competitive political landscape has indicated a decoupling of conventional status quo politics. And fourthly, this split parliamentary mandate has produced a hung parliament, which necessitated that major parties form a coalition government. Such a fragmented mandate confirmed that a coalition government was, out of both necessity and choice, the only option available for continuing parliamentary governance in Pakistan.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led a minority government, which now controls the parliamentary majority as it has formed a coalition. However, the formation of this coalition – consisting of two ideologically different parties, the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) – forebodes the emergence of a toxic binary competition between the two parties. The new multiparty coalition format resembles ‘personal-interest-driven shiftings’ rather than a permanent and stable coalition necessary for bringing economic and political stability to the country. This power-sharing format, combined with the politics of patronage, reduces the chances of government policies being held politically accountable by the parliament.

An ideological disconnect impels the risk of major policy disagreements that could result in the current government’s dismissal through a no-confidence vote

The representation paradox that emerged out of the 2024 polls has potentially put the involved politicians’ political integrity and the complexity of this parliamentary coalition in question. Firstly, doubt over the election results has produced a perceived democratic legitimacy deficit for this coalition, as the coalition parties are trying to barter for a greater share of power than what they have achieved in the polls. Secondly, the pre-poll manifestos have mostly become irrelevant since a multiparty coalition government reduces the chances of implementing conflicting policy positions. A loose accord of two major political parties to form a coalition government seems to be a betrayal, both to their pre-election manifestos and their electorate, as they have virtually abandoned their promises to their voters and their principles in order to attain political offices. And lastly, an ideological disconnect – coupled with the non-monotonic relationship between the political partners of this coalition – impels the risk of major policy disagreements resulting in the current government’s dismissal through a no-confidence vote.

Apart from an academic criticism of coalition governments, its effectiveness can be measured by looking at the completion of its three-stage life cycle: government formation, coalition governance, and government termination. Its first stage starts with the distribution of political offices amongst political partners. The second stage of a coalition’s life cycle comprises coalition governance, where political partners support each other on legislative and non-legislative policy work of the cabinet. The third and last stage of coalition government is its termination, which takes place either through a policy disagreement between the political partners, which results in the government’s dismissal through a no-confidence vote, or when the coalition government manages to complete its term in parliament. 

The first stage has informally concluded as political offices have been distributed between the PML-N and the PPPP. The PPPP securing constitutional offices such as the presidency, the chairmanship of the senate, and seats of provincial governors, indicates its intention to not share collective ministerial responsibility in the federal cabinet, which is a fundamental feature of a coalition government. Such decline of sharing ministerial responsibility predicts an inherent inability of contemporary multiparty coalition to take difficult policy decisions under the guise of economic and political instability in the country. It also indicates how wisely one of the major political partners, the PPPP, has avoided sharing its policy payoffs.

The PPPP has secured constitutional offices which indicate its intention to not share collective ministerial responsibility in the federal cabinet

The durability of the second stage varies from one coalition governance model to another. The literature on coalition governance suggests three models: the PM-dominated model, where a prime minister alone dominates policy decisions; the ministerial autonomy model, where ministers in charge of respective ministries enjoy considerable agenda-setting autonomy; and the coalition compromise model, where political partners agree on policy decisions by deviating from their original party positions in order to deliver democratic governance.

If the PML-N-led coalition government tries to enforce the PM-dominated governance model, the chances of it completing a five-year term in office would be minimal as premier Shehbaz Sharif does not enjoy a parliamentary majority surplus. The incumbent coalition also cannot afford a ministerial autonomy model, which would result in disjointed policy decisions taken by cabinet members from at least two parties, the PML-N and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), both having divergent and, at times, conflicting policy positions.

It is therefore advisable to implement the coalition compromise governance model where all political partners – whether they became part of the federal cabinet as in the case of the MQM-P, or whether they declined ministerial positions as in the case of PPPP – must evolve consensus on policies to produce democratic governance and to prevent any approach towards that stage of the coalition life cycle where a policy disagreement would result in its premature termination. Arguably, the successful completion of this multiparty coalition government’s life cycle potentially depends on how political partners therein would work together for democratic coalition governance.

The author has worked as a research fellow at School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He completed his Ph.D. dissertation on the ‘Regional Representation in Bicameral-Federal Parliaments: Constitutional Role and Functioning of the Senate of Pakistan as a Chamber of Provinces,’ at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He can be reached at His 'X' handle is @DilawarSaidhen