Pakistan’s two dynastic parties have reached a power-sharing agreement that will return Shehbaz Sharif to the premiership, leaving out politicians loyal to jailed former leader Imran Khan despite them winning the most seats in this month’s vote.
The army-backed Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) said they had settled days of negotiations on securing a majority to form a coalition government that will also include several smaller parties, after the February 8 polls returned no clear winner.
Candidates loyal to Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won the most seats but were forced to stand as independents following a sweeping and often brutal crackdown on the party in the lead-up to the election, which was marred by allegations of massive vote rigging.
The proposed new government looks much the same as the shaky coalition that combined to controversially oust Khan in a no-confidence vote in 2022, when Sharif became prime minister for the first time.
On the streets of the capital Islamabad, some were sceptical of what the new government had to offer.
“Establishing a (coalition) government hasn’t proved beneficial in the past,” said retired 67-year-old Saeed Asmat.
“Each time they formed a government, inflation skyrocketed, making it difficult for the poor to survive,” he added. “What actions will they take now?”
The deal was announced at a late-night news conference in Islamabad, announcing Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, as president.
“The Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz have attained the numbers and we will form a government,” said PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Zardari and Bhutto.
“We are hopeful that Shehbaz Sharif will soon become the prime minister of the country and the whole of Pakistan should pray that the government should be successful.”
Bhutto Zardari, who was foreign minister under Sharif in the last government which dissolved in August ahead of elections, said ministerial portfolios had been agreed and would be announced in the coming days.
The National Assembly must convene by February 29, when the coalition can be formally approved.
PTI lashed out against the agreement, reiterating its accusations of foul play.
“The PML-N and the People’s Party deserve some praise for their epic 30-year journey, from stealing taxpayers’ money together to stealing an election together,” the party said on social media platform X.
It also referred to Sharif and Bhutto’s parties as “mandate thieves”.
PML-N and PPP formed an opposition coalition in 2022 before seizing power from Khan, overseeing a period of massive inflation and dwindling cash reserves that almost caused the nuclear-armed state to default.
Sharif’s brother, three-time premier Nawaz Sharif, returned to Pakistan from self-imposed exile to lead the election campaign after analysts said he struck a deal with the military that saw his convictions for graft melt away in remarkably swift time.
But Nawaz — who was widely considered to be pulling the strings of his brother’s government from his home in London — failed to secure the expected majority.
Former cricketing star Khan has been languishing in jail since August, slapped with lengthy sentences for corruption, treason and an illegal marriage — also in remarkably quick succession— charges he says are politically motivated and designed to keep him from power.
Khan was brought to power in 2018 by a young electorate weary of the dynastic politics of PML-N and PPP. He was booted after analysts say he fell out with the military and went on to wage a stellar campaign of defiance against the establishment.
Social media platform X has been disrupted across Pakistan since Saturday night, when a senior government official made a public admission of vote manipulation in the February 8 polls.
Digital rights activists said the platform was used to protest against alleged rigging of the results.
The deal between the two parties to form a coalition government will be based on conditional support from one of them, the PPP, that will review decisions on a case-by-case basis, a top PPP official said yesterday.
Such an arrangement could make life difficult for the government, which needs to take tough decisions to steer the country out of financial crisis facing a strong opposition bloc led by supporters of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan.
“It will be, of course, a roller coaster,” said political commentator and author Ayesha Siddiqa of the road ahead for the next government.
But the PPP is not taking cabinet positions, its secretary of information, Faisal Karim Kundi, told Reuters, and its support in parliament would depend on the party’s stance.
“We will support policy decisions on an issue-to-issue basis,” Kundi said, adding that PPP would vote for the PML-N’s prime minister candidate, Shehbaz Sharif, younger brother of party chief Nawaz Sharif.
The most challenging task is to agree on critical fiscal tightening conditions under a new International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme.
The current IMF programme expires in March.
Other big moves include privatisation of loss-making state owned enterprises such as the flagship carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). Kundi said the PPP would not support the privatisation of the airline, while the PML-N would want to fast-track it.
In return for supporting the formation of government by PML-N, PPP will seek the offices of president, chairman of the upper house of the parliament, and governors in two of the four provinces, he said.
PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb did not respond to a request for a comment.
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