Pakistan’s old guard confronts shock upset from Imran Khan in Punjab heartland

Surge for jailed former PM’s candidates in base for army and dynastic parties could weaken incoming coalition

After being blindsided by the shock victory of candidates loyal to Imran Khan in elections last week, rivals of the jailed former prime minister are set to govern again as they cobble together a coalition of Pakistan’s traditional ruling parties.

Shehbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N has agreed to form a government with groups including the Pakistan People’s Party of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto. Analysts said the arrangement appeared to have the support of the powerful army.

But they will inherit a country that has reacted sharply against Pakistan’s long-standing political model of rule by military-backed, family-run parties.

Candidates allied with Khan’s populist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won the most seats in parliament last week, propelled by voters weary of Pakistan’s political old guard and the military’s manipulation of politics. The army had orchestrated a pre-poll crackdown on the PTI, which in turn has alleged vote rigging to deny it a parliamentary majority.


“There’s been a generational shift,” said Hammad Azhar, a senior PTI member, adding that younger voters “don’t identify with the old dynastic parties”.

Even if the PML-N and its allies take office once again, observers said the surge in support for the PTI had shifted the balance of power – leaving a Sharif-led government looking vulnerable before it has even started.

“Pakistan’s most consequential election has altered the national political landscape,” said Mushahid Hussain, a senator from Sharif’s PML-N.

“People voluntarily came out on their own in droves to vote for PTI. Normally they have to be bussed to polling stations in transport provided by candidates.”

Nowhere was this more evident than in Punjab province, home to about half of Pakistan’s 240 million people. The province has historically been a vital base for both the army and the PML-N, long led by Shehbaz Sharif’s brother Nawaz, a three-time former prime minister.

Punjab “is now solidly PTI turf, a remarkable achievement for a party that has been hounded and harassed for the last two years”, Hussain said. To compete, he added, the PML-N must “bid goodbye to the traditional patronage politics of the party” and start “delivering on development”.

The PML-N and PPP, who governed Pakistan in a coalition after Khan’s ousting as prime minister in 2022, will inherit a country in crisis.

Inflation was at nearly 30 per cent last month, while an IMF programme that helped Pakistan avoid default last year expires in April. Islamabad’s foreign reserves of $8bn are only enough for six weeks’ worth of imports.

Sharif said he would prioritise fixing the economy and wage “war against the country’s challenges”.

But economists warn that Pakistan has few good options. Efforts to counter Khan’s populist appeal with giveaways will only make the country’s finances more precarious, while authorities will probably need to go back to the IMF for more loans to stay solvent. Any deal with the IMF is expected to involve potentially unpopular reforms, such as raising taxes.

“It’s a no-win situation for them,” said Sakib Sherani, an economist who has advised Khan’s party. More economic pain “will just solidify the resentment that people have towards the entire set up”.

The PTI, meanwhile, accuses its rivals of lacking legitimacy to govern after the polls were marred by irregularities, including delays to the results and allegations of vote rigging.

The party, whose chosen candidates won about 100 of 265 seats contested, claims it would have received 80 more were it not for manipulation of the results, and has vowed to prove in court it won a majority and to form a government itself.

One local politician has relinquished his seat in the Sindh provincial assembly, claiming it had been rigged in his favour to stop the PTI, while polls for some seats were rerun on Thursday following reports of irregularities.

Sharif and his allies have called on the PTI to work with them, accusing it of prolonging the country’s instability.

Khan’s party “should come and talk with us”, said Asif Ali Zardari, who is the father of the PPP leader and is expected to take the ceremonial role of president, which he previously held from 2008 to 2013.

“We should move forward,” he told journalists this week.

Yet even Sharif’s mooted partners are hesitant.

“We know it’s going to be a very difficult time for Pakistan’s economic conditions,” one senior PPP figure said, suggesting the party would seek a minimal role in any coalition. “We don’t want to take that heavy responsibility.”

No Pakistani prime minister has ever completed a full five-year term and one senior PML-N member acknowledged a “sense of nervousness”.

“The largest single bloc in the house will be the PTI,” the member said. “It’s clear that the people have still voted for the PTI in spite of all the pressure.”

Longer term, observers said the PML-N must work to win back Punjab.

“Wherever we go . . . everyone supports Imran Khan,” said Sahiba Batool, a 27-year-old engineer in Lahore, the provincial capital. “I haven’t seen one person supporting another party.”

Punjab is also the primary recruiting ground for the army, and was at the sharp end of the crackdown on Khan’s supporters last year after the former cricketer held raucous rallies criticising the military’s backing for dynasties such as the Sharifs.

When some protesters vandalised military installations, thousands of PTI supporters were arrested and Khan was imprisoned.

Analysts said this heavy-handed approach appeared to have encouraged alarmed voters to support PTI candidates such as Rehana Dar, the mother of a senior party member who disappeared for weeks during the crackdown last year.

Dar lost to a veteran PML-N former minister in Sialkot, an industrial city in Punjab, but the election commission has suspended the result while it investigates allegations the contest was rigged against her.

“Our children were being taken away, the homes of mothers were being destroyed . . . so I decided to take a stand,” Dar said. “There must be clean, free and fair elections for Pakistan to progress.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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