- By Nicholas Yong and BBC Urdu
- in Singapore and Islamabad
Pakistanis still don’t know which party will form their next government or who will be their next prime minister, four days after the disputed general election.
Despite the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and numerous obstacles to his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, independent candidates backed by the party surprised observers by winning 93 seats in the National Assembly, the most of any party. However, it is well short of the simple majority of 169 seats needed to form a government.
The constitution dictates that political parties must form a government by February 29, or three weeks after election day. The National Assembly has a total of 336 seats, of which 266 are decided by direct vote and 70 are reserved – 60 for women and 10 for non-Muslims – and are allocated according to the strength of each party in the assembly.
“It is a fragmented mandate in which neither party has a simple majority. And yet they will have to find common ground or form a coalition to exist,” political analyst Rafiullah Kakar told BBC Urdu from Islamabad.
While both the PTI and PML-N have declared victory, a coalition government seems inevitable. As the disputes continue, independent candidates who did not win have flooded the courts with accusations of vote manipulation. PTI supporters have also staged protests in front of the Election Commission offices across the country.
So what’s next? There are a few possible scenarios:
Sharif’s PML-N joins forces with Bhutto’s PPP
A likely scenario could be for the PML-N to form a coalition with the PPP, as well as some smaller parties, Professor Samina Yasmeen of the University of Western Australia told BBC Newsday. The two parties formed an alliance to oust Khan from power in 2022 and governed until last August.
“The sticking point would be who would be the next prime minister and what the division would be in terms of the position of the president, but also within the different provinces,” he added.
The PML-N courts the social liberal movement Muttahida Qaumi (MQM), which won 17 seats. He is also seeking to attract independent candidates to his side.
While Zardari met a PML-N delegation led by Sharif’s brother Shehbaz in Lahore on Sunday, the PPP appears to be taking its time to consider its options. The party’s central executive committee will meet in Islamabad on Monday.
PPP forms alliance with Khan’s PTI
PPP leader Sherry Rehman said the party’s doors are open to all political forces, when asked by BBC Urdu if the party was willing to work with the PTI.
However, Khan’s media adviser Zulfi Bukhari told the BBC that the PTI is very likely to sit on the opposition benches rather than form a coalition if it fails to muster a majority.
This echoes earlier sentiments from Mr Khan, who is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence on several charges. He said in 2018 that a coalition government would be weak and that the country needed a strong government to overcome the crises it faced. However, he formed a coalition with smaller parties like the MQM.
PML-N forms coalition with PTI and other parties
This would be a notable change for a party whose leader has been jailed, its party symbol stripped and dozens of its followers detained. But in these unprecedented times nothing can be ruled out.
PML-N leader Azam Nazeer Tarar’s call for a “participatory coalition government” where “everyone should join hands” appears to be a tacit acknowledgment that the PTI cannot be ignored.
“Even those who did not vote for Imran before may feel a sense of injustice at how the military has treated him and his party over the past two years,” Uday Chandra of Georgetown University told the BBC. “It seems that a sense of democratic justice, common throughout the region, has been violated.”
He added: “By electing independents, voters are sending a clear message to the military: let civil democracy prevail.”
PTI-backed independents merge with smaller party
One possibility that has been discussed is for PTI-backed candidates to join a smaller party in a bid to form a coalition government. This is to combine their seats and also to capitalize on the 60 National Assembly seats reserved for women.
A political party obtains one seat reserved for a woman for every 3.5 seats it has obtained. Independent candidates are not eligible for this because they do not belong to any party. Within 72 hours of the election results being finalized, they must also declare their intention to join a party or be an independent parliamentarian.
However, Asma Faiz of Lahore University of Management Sciences says it is “very unlikely” that the PTI will be able to form a coalition government, as even alliances with smaller parties will leave them short of a majority.
“For the PTI, there is no numerical advantage in approaching these tiny parties except as a legal requirement to gain a foothold in a party,” he said.