Pakistan again lands itself in political strife

Pakistan again lands itself in political strife

Photos: Bloomberg
Photos: Bloomberg

Pakistan is politically on the brink again in the aftermath of fractious but inconclusive national parliamentary elections, which ended with a question mark hanging over this land of 241 million people like a political Damocles sword. Two former prime ministers, both bitter rivals and equally mired in alleged corruption, are vying for the top spot.

Personality politics and regionalism remain a powerful force in this Muslim land created through the partition of India in 1947; a gaggle of political parties, colourful personalities and scions of family dynasties all compete in a contentious political landscape. Yet it's the Pakistan army which remains the ultimate kingmaker.

A Pakistani blogger jested, "The Pakistani army has never won a war, but never lost an election." The quip reflected Pakistan's three lost conflicts with neighbouring India over the disputed Kashmir region.

Imran Khan remains a wildly popular populist whose PTI party or Pakistan Movement for Justice would have likely won the parliamentary elections. He actually did, given that his barred candidates running as "independents" scored 93 plus seats, beating the government candidates.

Pakistan's military backed the Nawaz Sharif government in what appeared to be a slam dunk to win the election. After all, the country's most popular figure, Khan, was jailed by the government on a plethora of politicised charges and thus barred from running. Khan, a former world-ranked cricketer, turned to politics, founding the PTI.

Following the inconclusive election results, chief of the military, Gen Asim Munir, called on all parties to "show maturity and unity", saying: "Elections are not a zero-sum competition of winning and losing but an exercise to determine the mandate of the people."

The election delivers a major political upset driven by an anti-establishment vote, a younger societal disenchantment, and genuine concerns about vote rigging and government shutdown of phone and internet services on election day.

But now there's more wrangling and horse-trading as the politicians try to form a government in Islamabad. Yet the shadows of the men in uniform, who historically ruled this land for nearly half its national existence, are very much in evidence even on the brightest day.

Forming a coalition needs a simple majority of 169 seats in the National Assembly. Mr Sharif, 73, a three time former PM ousted for corruption in 2018, has returned from a four year exile in London and leads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N); his party won 75 seats. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) got 54 seats and will likely join Mr Sharif in forming a coalition government. Bilawal Bhutto is the son of assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Khan, 71, the winner of the last national 2018 elections, was forced out of office by a no-confidence vote in 2022. But despite his popularity, he sits in jail. Nonetheless, Khan remains the most charismatic politician in Pakistan, as the unrelenting political allegations and a plethora of charges thrown at him have energised his popularity and political support. Among the charges and court cases against him revolve about "leaking classified state documents" gifts his wife received while he was in office, and "corruption" for which he's serving a current jail term.

Khan is prone to sometimes outrageous antics to get attention. This writer saw him at a UN press conference a few years ago where, as prime minister, he railed against India and predicted a major uprising in the contested Kashmir region.

Do these events half a world away echo a strange resonance as the US approaches elections in November?

But beyond chronic political infighting, Pakistan stands on the precipice of economic disaster, entrenched youth unemployment, and violent spillover from neighbouring Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, Pakistan's political polestars remain its close ties to China and perpetual hostility towards India.

The army has been described by pundits as "a state within a state", and it has influenced national politics since Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947. Indeed, within the military, there's the ISI intelligence network, which runs a shadow government which has played a decidedly double game backing various Taliban factions during and after the Afghan war.

Equally, Pakistan, not to be forgotten, is a nuclear-armed state, as is India. The long-running confrontation with India concerning Kashmir remains a short fuse, leading to a wider conflict.

What does this mean for South/Southeast Asia? So much to anyone paying attention.

John J Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defence issues. He is the author of 'Divided Dynamism: The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China'.

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