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Pakistan: The battles ahead

By Murtaza Solangi

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After a controversial election, government formation and reconfiguration of the opposition is in top gear. Imran Khan is about to be elected prime minister by joining hands with independents and small parties he loathed his entire political life. The election of the prime minister would be more reminiscent of Zafarullah Jamali, who was elected by a single vote in 2002. We don’t need to elaborate more on it as it will be explained by pundits in the weeks, months and years ahead. Same goes for the Punjab government.
The governments formed through a razor thin majority in both national and Punjab assemblies have their downside. The way that majority has been achieved goes along with it. Both the Punjab and the federal government, loaded with an amateur leadership, will have tough time handling their newfound allies and facing a tough, veteran opposition with decades of parliamentary experience. Because of the burden of the “engineered” victory, Imran Khan’s government will have the least space available in dealing and negotiating with the security establishment, most probably leaving all key areas of the governance outside Islamabad.
Despite the absence of veterans like Maulana Fazal Rehman, Aftab Sherpao, Asfandyar Wali and Mehmood Achakzai, the new national assembly has has firebrand MNAs who will make the parliamentary reporters worth sitting in the press gallery. The above-mentioned Pakhtun leaders will keep the streets hot and some of them may make a comeback through the by-polls to be held shortly. The one to really watch will be the young PPP chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who has been elected to the parliament for the first time.
As the time goes by and the honeymoon period of the PTI is over, the burden of incumbency will grow, the instability of both the federal and the Punjab government will be on the rise. The razor thin majority will continue generating tremors for the entire period.
The new government will operate in a tight financial space with rising foreign debts, dwindling forex reserves and regional and international pressures, FATF included. There is no chance that the incoming government will be able to deliver on its 100-day utopia. The Achilles heel of Pakistan, however, will continue to be the civil-military divide sucking in the PTI as well over time. Even if there was no opposition, the best opposition will be provided by the vile, noisy, chattering middle classes who have supported the party for change but have got only power brokers of the Purana Pakistan at the helm.
What will be more exciting is to watch is the politics within the PML-N.
The reconciliation politics of Shehbaz Sharif and his son Hamza did not deliver the federal or the provincial government to the party. Many of its fighting faces were either disqualified or dragged in NAB cases. The current results have only emboldened the anti-establishment combative wing of the party and discredited Shehbaz Sharif. With Nawaz Sharif and his heir apparent Maryam Nawaz Sharif in jail, the power within the party tilts more towards Nawaz Sharif camp more than ever. Even if Shehbaz Sharif wears the robes of the leader of the opposition, the party in the national assembly, Senate and the evening chat shows will be represented more by feisty players like Pervaiz Rasheed, Musadiq Malik, Khawaja Asif, Ahsan Iqbal, Khurram Dastagir and Marriyum Aurangzeb than the wishy-washy folks of the party.
Another interesting thing to look out for is the 50-year-old PPP. The biggest blow so far has been to the status of former president Asif Ali Zardari. Despite his reputation as a wizard politician, he and his sister Faryal have been mostly hurt in this election.
Because there are questions over their integrity, most PPP candidates chose to contest elections without their pictures on their campaign’s media. Asif Zardari was forced to stay indoors and did not address a single election rally. The entire campaign was led by young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who attracted quite large crowds. The 43 MNAs have helped him more than his father’s legacy. New FIA cases against both won’t help either.
Asif Zardari, in the pre-election arena, hit the PML-N hard to ease his relations with the security establishment after his fracas during Raheel Sharif’s tenure as COAS. His hard-hitting speech in June 2015 in Islamabad forced him to go into self-exile for more than a year and he returned only after Raheel Sharif’s retirement. Zardari did not miss a single opportunity to declare Nawaz Sharif an Indian agent, security risk and pushed for his disqualification and conviction and celebrated his removal. All this was done to spare him and return in good graces of the establishment.
Sensing a hung parliament, projected by pundits, he saw an opportunity. Zardari hammered it hard that he will be the kingmaker with 40 or so MNAs in his hand. The current results have killed that possibility.
Since the PML-N has the largest number of seats in the opposition, the party has lost the coveted position of the leader of the house too. Despite his election as the MNA, Zardari now only has the option to sit on the backbenches of the national assembly like former president Farooq Leghari. Most probably he will be the new addition to the absentee MNAs and live most of the period operating from Dubai or London.
After the PTI comes to power, the leader of the house in the Senate will change and will throw the entire lot of PML-N senators onto the Opposition benches. This will deprive the party from the short-lived leader of the opposition status currently enjoyed by Sherry Rehman as the PML-N will now have the largest block of senators of a single party in the opposition. Now only Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Sharif will decide as to who will be the new leader of the opposition in Senate. Will it be a ferocious Pervaiz Rasheed or the docile Raja Zafarulhaq? The decision will be made soon enough.
Fasten seatbelts folks, the rocky ride is about to start.