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Pakistan's next coalition government: The ups and downs of Sharif-Bhutto ties | EXPLAINED

The PML-N and PPP joined hands to form Pakistan's federal government in 2008 and 2022. The leaders of these two parties - Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto- were locked in intense rivalries for power in the 1990s that ended with Nawaz's ouster by Pervez Musharraf.

Aveek Banerjee Written By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Islamabad Published on: February 21, 2024 17:47 IST
Pakistan, coalition government, Pakistan elections
Image Source : X PTI criticised the newly formed alliance, dubbing it 'PDM 2.0'.

Islamabad: Pakistan is expected to witness the formation of its next coalition government after Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Bilawal Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) struck a power-sharing deal to form a coalition after weeks of negotiations, putting an end to political uncertainty in the country after a fractured verdict.

"The PPP and PML-N have achieved the required number, and (now) we are in a position to form the government," Bilawal announced at a joint press conference at the Zardari House in Islamabad, without revealing the number of lawmakers they have in the 266-member National Assembly. 

It is important to mention here that none of the parties won a majority in the February 8 elections. In a surprise show of power, incarcerated former Prime Minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-backed candidates won the maximum seats in the National Assembly, but they could not form a government as the party was stripped of its electoral symbol. The party has alleged widespread rigging in the elections, demanding the resignation of the Chief Election Commissioner.

Imran Khan's PTI criticised the newly formed alliance, dubbing it 'PDM 2.0' and accusing them of being 'mandate thieves'. The upcoming elections have deep ramifications for the country's domestic policies and its relations with neighbour India. Although Nawaz has expressed an interest in improving bilateral relations with India, he has also asked the Centre to reverse its abolition of the special status bestowed under Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir.

What is the power-sharing formula?

In the general elections held on February 8, Independent candidates - a majority backed by 71-year-old Imran's PTI - won 93 seats in the National Assembly. The PML-N won 75 seats while the PPP came third with 54 seats. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P) has 17 seats. The results were a huge setback for the Pakistan Army, which has a huge influence on the country's politics and was believed to be backing the PML-N.

The PML-N, PPP, MQM-P and four other parties decided to form a coalition government, saying they wanted to resolve Pakistan's ongoing perils as soon as possible. In response, the PTI accused the parties of stealing the mandate and announced that the independent candidates backed by the party would join the seatless Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC). However, PML-N claimed that PTI and SIC had failed to prove a majority in the National Assembly.

On Tuesday, the coalition announced that PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif would be nominated for the Prime Ministerial office, while PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari would contest to become the next President. However, the PPP has declined to become part of Shehbaz Sharif's cabinet but has asked to get top constitutional offences, such as deputy NA speaker and Senate chairman.

On the other hand, the PML-N will receive PPP's support in forming the federal government and the Punjab provincial government - the Nawaz-led party's stronghold. Nawaz's daughter Maryam has been nominated as the chief ministerial candidate in Punjab. The PML-N will also vote for PPP's nominee for Balochistan's next Chief Minister.

Earlier talks for a coalition government failed as Bilawal rejected a deal that suggested PML-N to preside as PM for three years and then allow him to take the reins for the next two years. "I said no to this. I said I do not want to be a prime minister like this. If I become the prime minister, it would be after the people of Pakistan elect me," he said.

History of PML-N, PPP alliances

This is not the first time the PML-N and PPP came together to form Pakistan's federal government - they also did this in 2008 and 2022. Both parties were part of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) that was launched in 2020 against Imran's PTI-led government. Just like Nawaz was believed to be backed by the Army against Imran, the cricketer-turned-politician had secured the victory in the 2018 elections with the support of the military establishment.

The allegations of rigging rang loud in those elections as well and parties accused Imran's government of mismanaging the economy, following which the PDM was formed - comprising of PML-N, PPP, MQM-P, Fazlur Rehman's Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and other smaller parties. The alliance launched widespread protests against the government and some members of the PTI broke ranks and joined the PDM.

Although the PPP withdrew from the coalition in 2021 citing differences, it continued to support the alliance. The PDM finally managed to overthrow Imran Khan in 2022 when he was ousted through a no-confidence motion. The PTI was wracked with troubles after several defections and a fallout with the military. Shehbaz and Bilawal were elected the next Prime Minister and Foreign Minister respectively and continued till the formation of an interim government in August 2023.

Notably, Nawaz was convicted of several corruption cases and disqualified from office before leaving Pakistan for a self-imposed exile in London. PTI's fallout with the Army and the PDM's victory eventually paved the way for his return to Pakistan, after which all previous cases against him were quashed, signalling that he had reached a compromise with the military. Imran, on the other hand, had the opposite experience - being convicted of back-to-back cases and thrown in prison.

The dominance of Nawaz-Benazir tensions

Under former dictator Zia-ul-Haq's regime, two powerful and controversial figures emerged in Pakistan - former PMs Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Nawaz and Benazir shared an intense enmity with each other that dominated Pakistan's landscape for much of the period between 1988 and 1999 - during which both tried to topple each other's governments. Benazir, a Western-educated PM, grappled with her own challenges to lead Pakistan as PM, while Nawaz was born and raised in a wealthy and popular family in Punjab.

Benazir's father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was deposed by then-Army chief Zia-ul-Haq in a military coup, after which he was tried and executed. Benazir thus rallied against Zia's regime. On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif served under Zia's regime as the Chief Minister of Punjab province and was personally handpicked by the Army chief, while his family businesses suffered greatly after Zulfikar's nationalisation policies.

Thus an intense battle began between the two as they both accused each other of corruption and rigging and aimed to weaken each other's governments. The period of 1988-1999 saw the swing of power between Nawaz and Benazir. None of them managed to complete a full five-year term. The latter's PPP formed the government in 1988, then it lost to Nawaz's PML-led coalition in 1990, then won again in 1996 and lost to Nawaz again in 1996.

Former President Pervez Musharraf ended the swing of power by ousting Nawaz in a bloodless coup, after which the PML-N supremo was convicted and exiled. Similarly, Bhutto was also disqualified and spent several years in exile in London, which began the steps for their first coalition in 2008. Both countries reportedly favoured warmer ties with India, but maintained a hardline position on Kashmir.

A thaw in relations

Signs of reconciliation between Nawaz and Benazir began in 2020 when the latter visited him in Jeddah where he was living after being sent into forced exile. The two ex-PMs then banded together against Musharraf, who had sidelined the two parties to form a military-backed government at the Centre. This was a notable shift from the intense rivalry the leaders shared in the 1990s.

Benazir and Nawaz signed a long-awaited Charter of Democracy (CoD) which established their struggles against dictatorship and pledged to overthrow 'distortions' introduced by Musharraf to restore civilian democratic rule. The charter advocated for improvements in governance, constitutional reforms, transparent elections and more. The two parties held multiple protests against Musharraf's presidency.

After Benazir's assassination in 2007, the PPP won the most seats in the 2008 general elections and formed a coalition government with the PML-N, after which Musharraf resigned. Yousif Raza Gilani was appointed as the Prime Minister and Asif Ali Zardari took over as President. However, the coalition lasted only months, as differences over reinstating Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who criticised Musharraf, emerged between the two parties. PPP named a new cabinet with other parties after PML-N's departure.

What this means for India?

Political analysts have warned that a coalition government formed by the PPP and PML-N it will not last for long. It is likely to struggle to tackle multiple challenges - the foremost being seeking a new bailout programme from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after the current arrangement expires soon, along with slow growth and skyrocketing inflation.

It is difficult to say how India-Pakistan relations will be affected by the new government. Nawaz has indicated an improvement in relations with New Delhi and has on multiple occasions praised India's progress and international achievements. Bilawal and Imran have also advocated on normalisation of ties but relations have remained tense, particularly over Kashmir.

No matter who becomes the next Prime Minister, India will still have to deal with a controversial neighbour accused of housing multiple terrorist outfits and promoting cross-border terrorism. Given the instability of a coalition, it is difficult to gauge how far efforts for a normalisation of ties will go forward. It is also unlikely that Pakistan's military will allow the elected leaders much leeway towards India.

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