Pakistan’s New Government: Crown of Thorns and 'Family Business’ As Showrunners

For now, the new Shehbaz Sharif government in Islamabad will have to address an urgent fiscal exigency.

4 min read

Pakistan is all set to have a new government led by former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif a week after the 8 February National Elections – one that has been bitterly contested, visibly controversial, and what may yet prove to be consequential in the troubled nation’s tumultuous political trajectory.

This election pitted the two major parties, the Pakistan Muslim League or PML (N) led by Nawaz Sharif, the elder brother of Shehbaz (who is also a former three-time PM), and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) representing the Bhutto-Zardari family, against the 'new kid on the block’ – the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

The final tally has taken both Pakistan and its external observers by surprise.

The Rise Of The Sharifs

It may be recalled that Pakistan's former cricket captain-turned-politician Imran Khan was chosen by the Pakistan Army to unseat PM Nawaz Sharif in 2018. When Captain Khan became too 'independent’ of Rawalpindi (GHQ of the Pak Army), he was shown the door through a no-confidence motion in parliament by a coalition of the PML(N) and the PPP in 2022.

At the time, Shehbaz Sharif was chosen as the PM and the Sharif family with its base in the Punjab province, had the rare distinction of having two siblings being 'elected’ to the highest office in the country – albeit with Army support – and thereafter seeing a chequered tenure.

In keeping with the dominant pattern of family and dynastic politics in Pakistan – the PPP founded by the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Sind as the stronghold is the other family, wherein both Zulfiqar and his daughter Benazir were PMs; and son-in-law Asif Zardari became President for a while and now son Bilawal Bhutto is the younger member who is the face of the PPP and a prime-ministerial candidate.

The PTI led by Imran Khan was the new party and acquired electoral traction on the plank of providing a corruption-free option that was different from the 'family dynasty’ template. Young Pakistanis threw their weight behind the mercurial cricketer-turned-politician in 2018 and enabled his rise to power.

Comebacks Galore in Family-Led Politics

In the 2024 election, contrary to expectations that the Pakistan Army which was determined to keep the PTI out of power would prevail in its machinations, the final numbers did not stack up as expected.

As per official results, PTI-affiliated independents won 93 seats, the PMLN 75 and PPP 54. However, smaller parties have joined the PML(N)-PPP coalition, and the numbers required to form a government in the 266 elected-members parliament are adequate.

It is expected that senior PPP leader Asif Zardari will be President for a second time. Thus 'family’ will be back at the helm of affairs in Pakistan but this time around in a joint manner – an arrangement of necessity that Nawaz Sharif had hoped to avoid.

The PPP may not join the cabinet but power-sharing details are still being negotiated.


Army Continues to Call the Shots in Pakistan

In keeping with the Pakistani model – the Army remains the kingmaker and the civilian government will have to accept this distinctive model – the quip being that while most nations have an Army, in the case of Pakistan, it is one that has subsumed the nation in a tail-wag-dog manner.

Does this mean that Pakistan is back to a familiar though slightly modified governance model, wherein 'family’ is again in business and the Army remains the real power behind the elected dispensation? The 2024 outcome is not so binary and a few strands suggest that this election could be potentially consequential for Pakistan.

The most significant strand is that the Pak Army is now on the back foot after the many aspersions cast on it by Imran Khan and the street protests against the fauj in May 2023 have jolted the men in khaki.

Furthermore, despite draconian restrictions on Imran Khan and his party by the Army that included debarring the PTI from contesting as a party, depriving it of its popular logo (a cricket bat), and forcing its candidates to contest the election as independents – Khan prevailed.


A New Trend Of Governance In South Asian Politics?

The final tally is testimony. Vote rigging allegations have been made by the PTI and the party claims that they won 170 seats but were denied an emphatic victory due to blatant manipulation of the final results.

While this matter may go to the courts, the other strand that merits mention is the innovative use of technology by the PTI, wherein both social media and AI/deep-fakes were harnessed with visible success.

Does this mark a new trend in electoral practices and in South Asia in particular where literacy may be low but cyber awareness and social media campaigning are much higher than the norm?

For now, the new Shehbaz Sharif government in Islamabad will have to address an urgent fiscal exigency – renegotiating an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan by the end of March.

Prudently, the generals have concluded that a civilian Prime Minister would be more sympathetically received by lenders than a military jackboot.

The macroeconomic indicators and food prices remain parlous and the new government is sailing into strong headwinds.

If Imran Khan refuses to accept this Sharif-Bhutto coalition arrangement and the PTI takes to the streets – as it has in the past – then Pakistan will have an even more complex internal crisis looming and the Army will again acquire the primacy it fears it is losing.

India will need to be both cognisant of and alert to the domestic calculus of its western neighbor.

(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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