Pakistan has weeks of political uncertainty ahead following its indecisive election, analysts said on Monday, with dozens of constituency results facing challenges in court and rival parties negotiating possible coalitions.
Independent candidates loyal to jailed former prime minister Imran Khan took most of the seats in Thursday’s polls, scuppering the chances of the army-backed Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) party from securing a ruling majority.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) defied a months-long brutal crackdown that crippled campaigning and forced candidates to run as independents to emerge as the winners of the vote.
There were widespread allegations of vote-rigging and result manipulation after authorities switched off the nation’s mobile phone network on Election Day, ostensibly on security grounds, and the count took more than 24 hours.
“Three potential challenges are linked to the legitimacy of the elections through prolonged legal proceedings, protests and potential for violence,” said Pakistan-based political analyst Amber Rahim Shamsi.
Despite independents winning 101 National Assembly seats, a government can only be formed by a recognised party, or coalition of parties, so they would have to join another group to become an effective bloc.
“In the short term, any coalition birthed through a highly controversial election in a highly charged political environment will find it challenging to enact unpopular reforms that Pakistan desperately needs,” Shamsi told AFP.
At least six minor parties won just one or two seats in the election, and would welcome independents to their ranks.
That would give them access to an additional 70 seats reserved for women and religious minorities and allocated according to election results — although it has never been done on this scale before and faces legal challenges.
“The courts have a very delicate role at this moment,” said legal expert Osama Malik, adding: “They will (also) need to decide whether to order recounts in various constituencies.”
PTI leaders insist they have been given a “people’s mandate” to form the next government.
“The people have decided in favour of Imran Khan,” party chairman Gohar Ali Khan said, before urging party supporters to picket election offices where he said rigging took place.
The United Nations weighed in on Monday, calling for resolution of disputes through “established legal frameworks.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “urges the authorities, political leaders, to maintain a calm atmosphere and to reject and refrain from all forms of violence,” his spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
Hundreds of party leaders and supporters were picked up last year when Khan was hit with more than 200 criminal cases he says were trumped up by the military-led establishment to stop him from contesting the election.
Earlier this month he was sentenced to lengthy jail terms after being found guilty of “treason”, “graft” and having an “un-Islamic marriage” — all three sentences handed in five days flat without hearing the defence council’s final argument or affording it the chance to examine witnesses.
Dozens of constituencies will have to have by-elections even without the results being challenged.
Several candidates won in multiple constituencies — a quirk allowed under Pakistan law — so they will have to choose one, with fresh elections held in the others.
Party defections are also common, with at least two winning independents who pledged pre-election loyalty to Khan already announcing they were joining the PML-N. More could follow.
“No government will have the luxury of time and political security after these elections,” said Shamsi. “There are also fears that this political insecurity will continue until the next elections.”
Meanwhile, the two largest political parties were on Monday wrangling over who will be prime minister and try to form a coalition in a parliament dominated by independents.
The squabbling is likely to deepen concerns about the stability of the nation which is mired in an economic crisis and battling a surge in militant violence.
Pakistan’s benchmark share index fell 3.4% on Monday, its first day of trading after the results of the February 8 vote.
Former prime ministers Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif both declared victory on Friday, with independent candidates backed by the jailed Khan forming the largest group of 93 members of a total of 264 seats for which results were declared.
However, Khan cannot become PM from jail and his grouping cannot form a government as they nominally ran as independents as his party was barred from standing.
Sharif’s PML-N was the largest recognised party with 75 seats and the PPP of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto, was second with 54.
The two parties opened formal talks late on Sunday to form a coalition government, with a statement from PML-N saying the meeting was “constructive” and “both expressed commitment to putting nation’s interest and well-being above everything”.
PML-N and PPP officials, however, said their talks were snagged over which leader would take the top job.
“Both sides are interested to form a coalition, but there is no breakthrough so far. Both parties want the office of prime minister,” a senior PML-N figure close to the Sharif family told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The PML-N has not named its prime ministerial candidate.
However, the PML-N source said it was “most likely” that Shehbaz Sharif, 72, who held the post for 16 months until August, will be chosen. He is the younger brother of party founder Nawaz Sharif, 74, who has been prime minister three times.
Nawaz Sharif would have been the candidate only if the party had got a clear majority, the senior figure added. Ata Tarar, another senior PML-N figure, however, said that the party had not made a decision on its candidate.
To become prime minister, a candidate has to show they have a simple majority of 169 seats out of the 336-member National Assembly when it is called into session in the next few weeks.
The PPP has always maintained Bilawal as its political scion, and if successful, the 35-year-old former foreign minister will become Pakistan’s youngest premier since his mother Benazir.
“Our party wants Bilawal as prime minister,” PPP leader Faisal Karim Kundi told Geo TV, adding that independents were joining his party. “No one can form a government without us.”
Some independent lawmakers, formerly of Khan’s PTI, could join either party, or form a coalition with a smaller party to try block the two larger parties, analysts say.
The PTI declined to comment about the lawmakers’ plans.
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