Pakistan’s elections last week left no clear winner and a hung parliament. Five days on, the political outfit of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and its allies announced that they will jointly form a coalition government, ending the uncertainty.
The latest development came hours after the parties – rival to imprisoned former prime minister Imran Khan – met in Islamabad. The meeting was also attended by former president Asif Ali Zardari from the Pakistan People’s Party.
“We have decided that we will form the government jointly,” Mr Zardari said at a news conference attended by other politicians including Shebaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz.
A spokesperson for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Marriyum Aurangzeb, said that the elder Sharif – a three-time prime minister – had nominated his younger brother for the prime minister role.
Earlier on Thursday, Pakistan sprung a shock outcome with independent candidates backed by imprisoned ex-prime minister Imran Khan winning the most seats – 93 out of 266. It was unexpected, given the political environment of the country.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party could hold no campaign rallies, had no polling agents on election day and faced internet restrictions, while there were serious allegations of vote manipulation as counting dragged on for three days – an unusually long delay in a country where preliminary indications of who has won normally emerge within a few hours of the close of polling booths.
After the first few results were announced it was neck-and-neck between the pre-election favourites, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party, and a group of independents backed by former prime minister Imran Khan, with political dynasty scion Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) trailing in third.
However, despite winning most seats – 93 – Khan-backed independent candidates were jostling for allies to form a government, as they refused to hold talks with the rivals. Mr Sharif’s PML-N with 75 seats, the single largest party and Mr Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) with 54 seats were working to negotiate with smaller parties to cross the majority mark.
By law, the National Assembly, or the lower house of parliament, must be called by the president three weeks after the national election. It means the parties have until 29 February to form a coalition. Lawmakers are sworn in during that session. They submit nomination papers for a number of key roles, including the speaker and leader of the house. After these positions are filled, a new prime minister is elected through a parliamentary vote, a task that requires a simple majority of 134 seats.
However, Khan is out of the race as he is in prison and is barred from holding public office. And while PTI-backed independents could have formed a government in alliance with other players, there are several challenges to it, including maintaining the stability of a government.
Analyst Azim Chaudhry said the other parties have "grievances and grudges" against Khan from his time in office and that they’re not ready to shake hands with him because he’s made it clear he doesn’t want to talk to them.
The PML-N and PPP started coalition talks once it became clear that Khan loyalists had taken the lead. They claim to have pacts with smaller parties and newly minted parliamentarians, including defectors from Khan’s side.
But knowing who could become prime minister from this ragtag crowd is trickier.
Party insiders say Mr Sharif isn’t suited to a coalition because of his temperament. His younger brother, Shehbaz, led a coalition after Khan was ousted from power and is regarded as more accommodating.
And then there’s Mr Bhutto-Zardari, a former foreign minister. It’s not clear if he’ll want the top job in a government that came to power through such a tainted election.
But he and his party are key to any coalition because they have the third-largest share of seats. Not for nothing is his father, Asif Ali Zardari, regarded as a kingmaker. He won’t do something that jeopardises his son’s political future, like joining hands with Khan, according to Chaudhry.
There’s a chance of an outside candidate becoming prime minister to keep all sides happy, but it’s hard to see the two families relinquishing their claim to power.
Additional reporting by agencies