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With Pakistan's political future still hanging in the balance four days after the general election, the country's two main traditional parties have begun negotiations on forming a coalition that would keep Imran Khan-backed independents out of government even if they win the greatest number of seats.
Candidates backed by Khan's PTI party won 95 seats, while the incumbent coalition parties, PML-N and PPP, won 75 and 54 seats, respectively.
With all parties well below the 133 required to obtain a majority in the National Assembly, a coalition of some kind is now inevitable. PTI supporters took to the streets on Monday over the idea that the parties that ousted Mr Khan in 2022 could come together again to form a government.
Mr Khan remains in prison and his party has been unable to run directly in the elections, making it all the more remarkable that his candidates have consistently emerged as the largest group. The authorities' treatment of the PTI was widely condemned internationally and significantly undermined confidence during last Thursday's general elections.
An internet blackout on voting day and long delays in counting also increased suspicions about the fairness of the election. The PTI says it is running for around a hundred seats where its independents lost, with around twenty applications filed with the electoral commission on Monday this week.
The PML-N believes it is still in the strongest position to install its leader Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. Senior politician Azam Nazeer Tarar told reporters that it was in the greater interest of the country for all to come together to form a coalition under his leadership. There is only one possibility of forming a government with the support of the PML-N. It will be a participatory coalition government, he said.
Analysts say it is difficult to envisage a path for the PTI to form the government, even if it controls 95 seats, and will instead form a strong opposition.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center, wrote on Twitter/X: The PTI has been given a public mandate to govern. But it is almost certain that Pakistan's next ruling coalition will look a lot like the last one, a reshuffle of the PDM led by the PML-N and the PPP and a few smaller parties. [The PDM, or Pakistan Defence Movement, was a coalition formed in 2020 to oppose the military and then prime minister Khan]. The PTI has defied all odds in recent days, but it appears to be heading towards the opposition.
He added: It will be difficult for the PTI to keep all its victorious sponsored independents on its side. They will be under pressure from the military to align themselves with different parties. The PTI will also struggle to find coalition partners, who may fear repercussions from a military that wants to isolate the PTI.
The PPP, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 35, son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said its central executive committee was meeting in Islamabad on Monday to discuss the PML-N's bid to form a coalition, but senior PPP politician Sherry Rehman. told the BBC that the party's doors remained open to negotiations with all political forces.
Analyst Ayesha Jalal told The Associated Press that a coalition government at the federal level is inevitable. And this is where things get complicated. Pakistan is now entering an uncertain scenario, which is in fact a post-election political crisis. Coalitions are not uncommon in Pakistani politics, but they are not easy to manage. They can become heavy, weak and prone to handling, she said.
It also makes it much more difficult for any government to pass the bold economic programs needed for the country to move forward and escape the deep structural problems that are weakening the economy. A divided national assembly and a weak government play into the hands of the army.
Additional reporting to agencies
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