Islamabad, Pakistan Five days after the February 8 elections, Pakistan is far from knowing which parties will form its next government and who could be its next prime minister.
The elections resulted in a divided mandate amid a cloud of questions about the fairness of the climate in which they took place, allegations of serious manipulation and disputes over the accuracy of the vote count that lasted three days.
Leading with 93 seats are candidates affiliated with former Prime Minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), who were forced to contest the elections as independents, without their electoral symbol, the cricket bat.
They are followed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which won 75 seats and is in theory the largest party in the National Assembly, although this figure stands at or less than a third of the 266 seats to be filled on February 8.
In third place is the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), led by former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, which won 54 seats.
But can PTI-backed independents form or join a government, what are the options for the party and what's next for the country?
What does it take to form a government?
A party or coalition needs a simple majority of 134 seats out of the 266 voted in the National Assembly to form a government.
A coalition can be made up of several parties or also include independents who won their seats.
These independent candidates can either formally join a party that aims to form a government or enter into an alliance with that party while retaining their individual identity.
Although technically PTI-backed independents could form the core of a government in alliance with other parties, whose support they would need to reach the 134-seat mark, such a path presents several challenges.
First, maintaining stability would be difficult. Such a government would depend on the individual whims of independent parliamentarians, making it vulnerable to defections and possible collapse.
Second, as a group of independents, the PTI bloc would have to give up access to part of the 70 seats reserved for women and minorities, which are shared proportionally among the parties represented in the National Assembly.
But if PTI-backed independents joined another party, they would fall under that parent party's discipline, potentially compromising their ability to act in accordance with PTI's policies and plans.
How soon must a government be formed after the elections?
Basil Nabi Malik, a Karachi-based lawyer, said that according to the constitution, a new session of the National Assembly must be convened within three weeks of the elections.
The law clearly states that the National Assembly will meet on the 21st day following the assembly election day, unless it is convened earlier by the president, he told Al Jazeera.
Unless Arif Alvi, the Speaker, calls the session earlier, 21 days will pass on February 29.
On the day of the session, if the parties have finalized their alliances and agreed on a coalition, members of the House will be asked to vote for Prime Minister, President and Vice President.
A leader of the opposition will also be chosen from one of the parties which have decided not to sit on the Treasury benches.
Which parties have made a gesture?
PMLN leader Nawaz Sharif said in a speech from the party headquarters in Lahore on Friday that he had asked his brother Shehbaz Sharif, also a former prime minister, to reach out to other political parties which won several seats in the elections, to build a governing alliance.
The PMLN leadership has already met its PPP counterparts, as well as representatives of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which won 17 seats in Sindh province.
However, the parties have not declared whether they are considering entering into an alliance or what the contours of a possible coalition could be.
And the PTI? Will its independents join another party?
The PTI, meanwhile, focused on protesting the alleged manipulation of election results.
The party leadership insists that the actual results of many of their seats were annulled, depriving their candidates of victory and thus ensuring that their seats remain below the magic number of 134 seats.
Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari, a senior PTI leader, categorically declared that he would not associate himself with any major political party.
Our internal party discussions and consultations are ongoing and we have many options on the table, he told Al Jazeera. The 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 won at least one seat in the National Assembly elections, of which six won only one seat.
If PTI-backed candidates decide to join another party, they must announce their decision within three days of the results being officially notified by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The ECP is yet to announce the official result.
Is creating another party an option for PTI-backed independents?
Kanwar M Dilshad, former ECP secretary and analyst, said that in theory, the PTI-backed independents could form a new party although the registration process could take a few days.
But this will not help the PTI in government formation at the moment, since no new party would have been part of the current electoral process.
Malik, who is also a Supreme Court lawyer, agrees with Dilshad's analysis: PTI-backed independent candidates can form a new political party, but it will not affect the formation of the new government.
It is [also] It is questionable whether such a political party, established after the elections, will enjoy the constitutional protections enjoyed by other political parties that had been enlisted and registered with the ECP before the elections in question, he added.
Abid Zuberi, another senior lawyer, said independents could also declare themselves as a group of like-minded members. But that wouldn't be considered a party either.
They can decide parliamentary matters en masse, but they will be treated as a group of independents, rather than a party, and therefore will not be able to receive the quota of reserved seats, Zuberi told Al Jazeera.
The PTI was stripped of its election symbol, the cricket bat, in January this year (EPA) Can the PTI get its symbol and party status back?
While party leader Imran Khan has been in jail since August 2023 and facing a massive state-led crackdown since at least May last year, the biggest setback he has faced was the loss of its electoral symbol.
They were accused by the ECP of violating laws on holding internal party elections. The party alleged that this was a move aimed at reducing its popularity and influence.
The party could seek relief from the country's Supreme Court to get the ECP's decision overturned. But it is unclear whether even a verdict in the party's favor would allow the independents it supports to officially represent the PTI in the new National Assembly.
The PTI must now hold elections, according to letter and spirit. But I don't think this will allow the party to be part of the current parliament since, according to the ECP, it does not exist regarding the results of these elections, said Zuberi, the lead lawyer who was also party president. Supreme Court Bar Association.
Senator Ali Zafar, a senior PTI leader as well as a member of its legal team, said the party was not sure of getting relief from the top court over the symbol.
I think maybe the issue of symbols is over now because it was for the purpose of running for office. I don't think this will have any effect on the post-election scenario. Instead, it is now a question of which party the PTI-backed candidates will join, he told Al Jazeera.
Malik also criticized the ECP's initial decision to remove the symbol and said that at present there is little evidence that this decision could be reversed in the near future.
We also see a lack of urgency on the part of the Supreme Court to resolve this matter and it may not be possible to complete this entire exercise before the first session, he said.
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