Pakistan election: Can Imran Khan’s winning candidates form a government?

Pakistan election

Pakistan election Pakistan is in political limbo after a split verdict. But what options does Khan’s PTI have, after candidates won the most seats?

Pakistan election Islamabad, Pakistan

Five days after the elections on February 8, Pakistan is nowhere closer to knowing which parties are going to make its next government and who might be its next prime minister.

The elections delivered a split mandate amid a cloud of questions over the fairness of the climate in which they were held, allegations of serious manipulation, and challenges to the accuracy of the vote counts that dragged on for three days.

Leading with 93 seats are the candidates affiliated with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who were forced to contest the election as independents, without their electoral symbol, the cricket bat.

They are followed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) of three-time ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which has won 75 seats and in theory, is the single-largest party in the National Assembly, even though the figure amounts to less than a third of the 266 seats that were up for grabs on February 8.

In third place is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by former Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, which has secured 54 seats.

But can the PTI-backed independents form or join a government, what are the options for the party, and what comes next for the country?

Pakistan election What’s needed for a government to be formed?

A party or coalition needs a simple majority of 134 seats out of the 266 that were voted on in the National Assembly, to form a government.

A coalition can consist of multiple parties or also include independents who won their seats.

Those independent candidates can either formally join a party that is aiming to form a government or enter an alliance with them while holding their individual identity.

While technically, the PTI-backed independents could form the core of a government in alliance with other parties, whose support they would need to get to the 134-seat mark, such a path presents several challenges.

Firstly, maintaining stability would be difficult. Such a government would depend on the individual whims of independent parliamentarians, making it susceptible to defections and potential collapse.

Secondly, as a collection of independents, the PTI bloc would have to forfeit access to a chunk of the 70 seats reserved for women and minorities, which are shared proportionately among parties represented in the National Assembly.

But if PTI-backed independents were to join another party, they would come under the discipline of that parent party, potentially compromising their ability to act according to the policies and plans of the PTI.

Pakistan election How soon must a government be formed after polls?

Basil Nabi Malik, a Karachi-based lawyer, said that according to the constitution, a new National Assembly session must be summoned within three weeks of the elections.

“The law clearly states that the National Assembly shall meet on the 21st day following the day on which the election to the assembly is held, unless sooner summoned by the president,” he told Al Jazeera.

Unless Arif Alvi, the president, calls the session sooner, 21 days get over on February 29.

On the day of the session, if the parties have finalised their allies and agreed on a coalition, the members of the house will be asked to vote for the prime minister, speaker and deputy speaker.

A leader of the opposition will also be selected from one of the parties which have decided against sitting on the treasury benches.

Pakistan election Which parties have made a move?

PMLN supremo Nawaz Sharif said in a speech on Friday from the party headquarters in Lahore that he had instructed his brother Shehbaz Sharif, also a former prime minister, to reach out to other political parties which have won several seats in the election, to build a governing alliance.

Interactive_Pakistan_elections_Government structure provincial

The PMLN leadership has already met with counterparts from the PPP, as well as representatives of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which won 17 seats in Sindh province.

Still, the parties have not declared whether they plan to go ahead with an alliance — and what the contours of any coalition might look like.

Pakistan election What about the PTI? Will its independents join another party?

The PTI, meanwhile, has focused on protesting alleged manipulations in the election results.

The party leadership insists that the actual results of a large number of their seats were overturned, depriving their candidates of victory, and thus ensuring their seats remain under the magical figure of 134 seats.

Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari, a senior PTI member, has categorically said that they will not join hands with any of the major political parties.

“Our internal party discussions and consultations are ongoing, and we have many options on the table,” he told Al Jazeera. “A decision to join a party will be made very soon, but it will not be one of the three or four major parties.”

A total of 13 parties have won at least one seat in the National Assembly elections, of which six have secured a single seat.

If PTI-backed candidates do decide to join any other party, they must announce their decision within three days of the official result notification by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The ECP has yet to announce the official result.

Pakistan election Is making another party an option for PTI-backed independents?

Kanwar M Dilshad, a former secretary of the ECP and an analyst, said that in theory, the PTI-backed independents could form a new party — though the process of registration could take a few days.

But that won’t help the PTI in government formation right now, since any new party would not have been part of the current election process.

Malik, who is also an advocate at the Supreme Court, agreed with Dilshad’s assessment: PTI-supported independent candidates can form a new political party, but that won’t affect the formation of the incoming government.

“It is [also] questionable as to whether such a political party, established after the elections, shall enjoy the constitutional protections enjoyed by other political parties that had been enlisted and registered with the ECP prior to the elections in question,” he added.

Abid Zuberi, another senior lawyer, said that the independents could alternatively declare themselves a group of “like-minded” members. But that too would not be considered a party.

“They can decide on parliamentary matters en masse, but they will be treated as a group of independents, instead of a party, and thus cannot receive the quota of reserved seats,” Zuberi told Al Jazeera.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf
PTI was stripped off its electoral symbol, the cricket bat, in January this year (EPA)

Pakistan election Can the PTI get its symbol and party status restored?

While the party’s leader Imran Khan has been in jail since August 2023 and they have been facing a massive, state-led crackdown since at least May last year, the biggest setback they faced was the loss of their election symbol.

They were accused by the ECP of violating laws about holding internal party elections. The party has alleged that this was a decision aimed at reducing the party’s popularity and influence.

The party could seek relief from the Supreme Court of the country, for the reversal of the ECP decision. But it is unclear if even a verdict in the party’s favour would allow the independents it backed to represent the PTI formally in the new National Assembly.

“Now PTI has to hold an election, according to the letter and spirit. But I don’t think it will allow the party to be part of the current parliament since according to ECP, it does not exist as far as the results of these elections are concerned,” said Zuberi, the senior lawyer who was also a former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

Senator Ali Zafar, a senior PTI leader as well as part of their legal team, indicated that the party was not confident it would get relief from the top court over the symbol.

“I feel that perhaps, the symbol issue is now over because it was for the purpose of contesting the election. I don’t think it will have any effect post-election scenario. Instead, now it is a question of which party do the PTI-backed candidates join,” he told Al Jazeera.

Malik also criticised the ECP’s original decision to remove the symbol and said that right now there’s little evidence that the move might be reversed anytime soon.

“We also see a lack of urgency in the Supreme Court in fixing this matter for hearing, and it may not be possible to complete this entire exercise before the first session,” he said.

Pakistanis still do not know which party will form their next government or who their next prime minister will be four days after the hotly-contested general elections.

Despite former PM Imran Khan’s detention and the many hurdles thrown at his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), independent candidates backed by the party stunned observers by winning 93 National Assembly seats, the most by any party. However it is far short of the 169-seat simple majority required to form a government.

The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) of another former PM, Nawaz Sharif, came in second with 75 seats. He was seen to have the backing of the country’s powerful military and had been expected to coast to victory, five years after he left Pakistan in disgrace.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by political blue blood Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, came in third with 54 seats.

The constitution dictates that political parties must form a government by 29 February, or three weeks after election day. The National Assembly has a total of 336 seats, of which 266 are decided by direct voting and 70 are reserved – 60 for women and 10 for non-Muslims – and these are allocated according to the strength of each party in the assembly.

“It’s a fragmented mandate where none of the parties have a simple majority. And yet they will have to find a common ground or form a coalition to exist,” political analyst Rafiullah Kakar told BBC Urdu from Islamabad.

While both the PTI and PML-N have declared victory, a coalition government appears inevitable. As wrangling continues, independent candidates who did not win have flooded courts with vote-rigging allegations. Supporters of PTI have also staged protests outside Election Commission offices across the country.

Pakistan election Sharif’s PML-N joins forces with Bhutto’s PPP

One likely scenario could see PML-N forming a coalition with the PPP, as well as some smaller parties, Prof Samina Yasmeen of the University of Western Australia told the BBC’s Newsday. The two parties formed an alliance to oust Mr Khan from power in 2022 and ruled until last August.

“The sticking point would be who would be the next prime minister (and) what would be the division in terms of the president’s position, but also within the different provinces,” she added.

The PML-N is courting the social liberal Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which won 17 seats. It is also looking to entice independent candidates to its side.

While Mr Zardari met a PML-N delegation led by Mr Sharif’s brother Shehbaz in Lahore on Sunday, the PPP appears to be be taking its time to consider its options. The party’s central executive committee is set to meet in Islamabad on Monday.

Pakistan election PPP forms alliance with Khan’s PTI

Senior PPP leader Sherry Rehman said that the party’s doors are open to all political forces, when asked by BBC Urdu if the party was willing to work with PTI

However Mr Khan’s media advisor, Zulfi Bukhari, told the BBC that it is highly likely for the PTI to sit on the benches of the opposition instead of forming a coalition if it fails to muster a majority.

Pakistan election ML-N forms coalition with PTI and other parties

This would be a remarkable turnaround for a party whose leader has been jailed, its party symbol taken away and scores of its supporters detained. But in these unprecedented times, nothing can be ruled out.

The call of PML-N senior leader Azam Nazeer Tarar for a “participatory coalition government” where “all should join hands”, appears to be a tacit acknowledgement that the PTI cannot be ignored.

“Even those who didn’t vote for Imran earlier may feel a sense of injustice over how the army has treated him and his party over the past two years,” Georgetown University’s Uday Chandra told the BBC. “A sense of democratic fairness, common across the region, seems to have been violated.”

He added: “By picking Independents, voters are sending a clear message to the army: let civilian democracy prevail.”

Pakistan election PTI-backed independents merge with smaller party

One possibility that has been mooted is that the PTI-backed candidates may join a smaller party in a bid to form a coalition government. This is in order to combine their seats, and also to capitalise on the 60 National Assembly seats reserved for women.

A political party gets one woman’s reserved seat for every 3.5 seats it has won. Independent candidates are ineligible for this since they do not belong to a party. Within 72 hours of the election results being finalised, they must also declare their intention to either join a party or sit as an independent parliamentarian.

However Asma Faiz of the Lahore University of Management Sciences says it is “highly unlikely” that the PTI will be able to form a coalition government, as even alliances with smaller parties will still leave them short of a majority.

“For the PTI, there is no numerical advantage in reaching out to these miniscule parties except as a legal requirement to gain a foothold in a party,” she said.

Pakistan election In shock result, allies of jailed ex-leader Khan win most seats in Pakistan election

Independent candidates affiliated with jailed Pakistani political leader Imran Khan’s party won the most National Assembly seats in Pakistan’s general election, delivering a surprise victory in a vote marred by a slow count and rigging allegations.

According to the Election Commission of Pakistan, independent candidates won 98 seats so far, with 22 seats still unclaimed. The majority of the independents are affiliated with Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz party (PMLN), headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which had been favored to sweep the polls, has so far won the second-most seats with 69. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has the third-most with 51 seats.

None of the three major parties of the country will win the necessary 169 seats to have a majority in parliament and, therefore, will be unable to form government on their own, leaving it unclear who will be picked to be the country’s next prime minister.

In a speech released Friday, an AI-generated version of Khan claimed victory in the election and called on his supporters to “now show the strength of protecting your vote.”

Khan, who has been behind bars since August, has been using AI to get messages out to supporters. “You kept my trust, and your massive turnout has stunned everyone,” the AI voice said in the video.

Pakistan election Who will lead Pakistan now?

Even if PTI could form the next government, Khan couldn’t be the next prime minister; he is barred from holding elected office for 10 years due to his criminal convictions.

Pakistan’s Parliament will have to form a coalition government, and that’s likely going to be a PML-N and PPP coalition, with Shehbaz Sharif, brother of the PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, becoming the prime minister.

“Most people — even those who follow Pakistani politics quite closely — were surprised at what happened on February 8, and this includes not only the number of people who came out to vote” in what was expected to be a very low-turnout election, as Niloufer Siddiqui, an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at SUNY-Albany, told Vox in an interview.

Support for PTI politicians was especially surprising given the many efforts to prevent such a victory, including jailing some politicians before the election and preventing the party from using their electoral symbol — the cricket bat, in reference to Khan’s past as a cricket star — on ballots.

Nawaz, the elder Sharif, has been prime minister three times before, starting in the 1990s; however, he’s never served out a full term and has twice gone into exile. But during his most recent term, starting in 2013, he was able to stabilize the economy and secure infrastructure investment from China — a step that’s now backfiring as Pakistan, like many other poor countries indebted to China, finds the bill coming due.

Sharif was also unsuccessful at managing Pakistan’s very serious security concerns, mostly stemming from extremism fomented in neighboring Afghanistan but also from local insurgencies and from ISIS-Khorasan, the Sunni extremist group that operates in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

There is a chance that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 35-year-old leader of the PPP, could be elected prime minister, particularly if independent politicians and those from smaller parties back the choice. “Our party wants Bilawal as prime minister,” PPP officer Faisal Karim Kundi said in an interview on Pakistan’s Geo TV, Reuters reported. “No one can form a government without us.”

Bhutto Zardari is the son of Benazir Bhutto — Pakistan’s first woman prime minister, who was assassinated in 2007 — and former President Asif Ali Zardari. Bhutto Zardari is also the grandson of former president and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Though part of an old Pakistani political family, Bhutto Zardari geared his campaign toward younger voters and focused on a platform that proposed economic change centered on climate change.

Pakistan election What does this say about Pakistan’s democracy?

The coming weeks are likely to be tense as Pakistan’s Parliament tries to form a government and PTI supporters show their allegiance — and voice their frustration with the political and military establishment.

“We can think of this vote as some combination of being pro-PTI in nature; it should also be seen as being anti-incumbent in nature,” Siddiqui said; that is, a rejection of politics as usual.

That means a rejection of the hybrid nature of Pakistani politics, which has democratic systems like elections and a judiciary but is, to one degree or another, directed by the military. A series of military coups has plagued Pakistan’s democracy, and despite competitive elections and active political parties, it’s the ultimate power — a dynamic that Khan and Sharif have both experienced as their falling out with the military establishment damaged their political careers (though Sharif appeared to repair his relationship with the military ahead of the election).

Asfandyar Mir, senior expert in the South Asia program at the US Institute of Peace, told Vox the system has stifled the efforts of democratically elected leaders. “Various institutional actors,” he told Vox, “have come to accept the limits that they need to stay within … and that cedes political space for the military to enjoy certain prerogatives in the Pakistani political system.”

Pakistan election Conclusion

Now PTI has to hold an election, according to the letter and spirit. But I don’t think it will allow the party to be part of the current parliament since according to ECP, it does not exist as far as the results of these elections are concerned

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