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A bleak future awaits Pakistan if politics and economics continue to collide

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May 25 presented a sorry spectacle of street clashes and a government-opposition showdown that plunged the capital into chaos. Between Imran Khan’s long march and the government’s use of force, the day’s disturbing events left people in a state of deep apprehension about the future. It remained unclear whether the political storm had run its course or its headwinds would continue to shake the country.

Sooner or later, elections will have to be called. This raises the question of whether this will resolve the ongoing political crisis and pave the way for much-needed stability. To be sure, the road ahead is a challenging one. Agreement on a code of conduct and acceptance of election rules will be far from easy. PTI’s demand to replace the chief election commissioner, who holds a constitutional post, is already a worrisome sign of what lies ahead. In an intensely polarised environment, with emotions running high, it is hard to see how consensus will be forged on the political rules of the road. Will all contestants also believe the playing field will be level for them?

Looking ahead, there are other more compelling factors to consider. Will the election results be accepted by all political actors? And assuming — a big assumption — they reluctantly do, what would happen after a likely bitter and bruising electoral battle? This is an important question because the political rhetoric of major parties does not hold out the prospect of stable governance in which a minimum working relationship is established between political rivals. Yet the nature of election outcomes in the past, the country’s diversity and the federal character of the polity should give our political leaders and their followers reason to pause and think. Because this demands an approach of managing the democratic system and running the country on the basis of political accommodation, compromise and tolerance of the ‘other.’

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If we look at election outcomes in the past two decades, two key aspects stand out. One, no party has been able to secure an overall parliamentary majority, and two, the regionalised nature of the result. In the last four elections — in 2018, 2013, 2008 and 2002 no party won an outright majority. The winning party had to cobble coalitions to form the government. Thus, a fractured vote and hung parliaments have been the norm, not the exception.

Also significant for the case for consensual governance is the size of the popular vote for the party that won in these elections. It is more useful to assess a party’s actual electoral support by looking beyond the distribution of seats. In the 2018 election, PTI got around 31 per cent of the popular vote. In 2013, PML-N polled 32pc of votes cast. In 2008, PPP secured 31pc. In 2002, PML-Q polled 23pc. This shows that in Pakistan’s first-past-the-post system, the party that has been able to emerge as the single largest and win enough seats to form a government with allies has done so with less than a third of the popular vote. And this is of the votes cast, not the total number of eligible voters. Turnout in these elections has ranged between 53pc (2013), 51pc (2018), 44pc (2008) and 41pc (2002). The large non-voting electorate indicates that significant political ground is not occupied by any party. That puts the mandate of the winner into real perspective.

The other feature of post-2002 elections is the regionalised nature of the result, which left different provinces with governments of varying political complexions. In 2018, PTI formed the government in KP, the PPP won Sindh, and in Punjab, seats were divided between PTI and PML-N but the former secured control of the province with allies, helped by the establishment. In 2013, the PML-N ran the centre and Punjab, but PTI formed the KP government and PPP the government in Sindh. In 2008, PPP won the national election, while the four provincial polls were won by different parties, PML-N in Punjab, ANP in KP, PPP in Sindh, and a PML-Q-led alliance in Balochistan.

What does all this mean? What lessons does this have for the country’s post-election future? First of all, there is little indication that Pakistan’s era of coalition governments is about to end. If the next election follows the same pattern as in the past, then regardless of who prevails, the winning party will likely poll a minority of the popular vote. Therefore, the notion that the winning party is the ‘sole representative’ of the people and that no one else represents the country has to be discarded. It has to be replaced by the acknowledgment that its mandate is qualified, as other parties also have significant electoral support and must be accommodated and included in the working of the political system. It also means that the ruling party should practise humility in its ambitions and in its conduct. The view that it can wield ‘absolute’ power and govern unilaterally is mistaken. With the support base of under a third of the popular vote, a ‘winner-takes-all’ attitude leads to inherently unstable, exclusionary governance.

The country’s federal reality also creates the imperative to work together — not just tolerate opposition-led provincial governments but for the centre to cooperate with them for the public good. In all likelihood, the next election will also produce a regionalised outcome. Thus, the need to adopt a consensual approach for stable and mutually beneficial centre-province relations that breaks from the unedifying past of strains in the federation.

The fragile state of the economy creates the most compelling reason for political rivals to work together on a common minimum basis. Governments have been reluctant to take tough decisions to address the economy’s structural weaknesses in large part for fear of political consequences and of the opposition exploiting that to orchestrate a public backlash and provoke discontent. Today, an economy again in the critical ward creates an imperative for post-election agreement among political leaders on remedial policy actions to heal it. All political actors need to think as much about the country’s economic future as their own partisan interests. Without economic stability, everything else will be in vain. If politics and economics continue to collide, the country’s future will be anything but bright.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.