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Hung parliament

January 21, 2018

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WHAT happens if none of them can form a government? Not a majority government, not a coalition government, not even a minority government — just no government at all.

In a house of 342, what if nothing adds up to 172 — not even just to elect a PM and let us all be done with the hell that the run-up to the election has become.

It’s a question that’s been buried in the regionalisation and fracturing of the electorate over the past decade or two.

There are regional — provincial — templates. In Balochistan and KP, minority governments and an array of nobodies have been cobbled together at various points to put up a chief minister and a wobbly government.

Never say never in an engineered outcome, but it would still be a slog for the PTI to get that far.

Once upon a time in Punjab, a handful of votes were used to grab the chief minister’s slot. But it’s not clear that any of that could work in the centre.

In the tawdriness and ridiculousness and whining that politics here has been reduced to and reduced itself to, we may well be stumbling towards finding out what happens when no one can form a government.

Sift through the possibilities.

Nawaz could win again, but to actually win he needs to win big in Punjab. While fighting with the boys and the courts. It’s a kind of win already that he’s not considered the underdog.

But parliamentary maths is of the hard kind.

It would be a Miracle on Constitution Avenue if Nawaz were to carry the N-League to a parliamentary majority. And then immediately we’d be caught in the wretchedness of trying to figure out how long the boys would tolerate the situation.

Or Imran and the ultra right could crawl to a coalition majority. But that would be very messy and a whole lot of iffy.

The most likely immediate electoral utility of the mainstreamed types and ultra-right options is to hold other parties back, not actually pick up a bunch of seats for themselves.

Realistically, a PTI-right-wing coalition would need to be somewhere in the region of an 80-20 split. Can the PTI really surge to 80 per cent of the way to a majority in the NA?

Never say never in an engineered outcome, but it would still be a slog for the PTI to get that far.

There is another possibility for the PTI: the existing religious parties combined with electoral chaff from Balochistan and Sindh plus the new ultra right. Throw in some version of the MQM.

That would probably reduce the coalition share the PTI would need to govern credibly to roughly 50pc, but at that point there’d be so many different moving parts that stability would be hard to fashion.

Even with the most determined of support from the boys.

Finally, there’s the PPP hanging on to its dominant position in rural Sindh and using that base to become a junior coalition with the largest party, probably the N-League. But for the same reason an IK-Zardari alliance would be inherently unstable, a Nawaz-Zardari coalition would challenge political logic.

A splintered parliament could also theoretically produce an alliance of inconvenience — N-League, PPP, JUI-F, MQM, etc — each having a different reason for seeking democratic continuity. But you’d be crazy to put any money on that particular configuration surviving long.

Which leaves us with a final possibility: what if none of them can get to 172?

It’s not hard to see how that could happen. The N-League already needs to win big to win and any N-League seat suppression by the boys could push it well below the 100-seat threshold.

And the gross incompetence of the PTI, on display once again this week, means that even significant electoral massaging by the boys to help out the PTI could also leave it well short of the 100-seat threshold.

Throw those two things together, toss in a few other reasonable possibilities, and we could end up somewhere we’ve never been before: a parliament with no government.

And that may end up opening the door to the ultimate dream: pausing the system.

No government after an election technically means a fresh election. There’s not much constitutional confusion in that.

But no government after an election would land us in a different political environment. Back-to-back elections tend to sap the electorate’s energy and make alternatives more palatable.

Alternatives like pausing the system.

Dusting off the rule book and finding out what it says about a hung parliament and the timing of the next election would create space for a counter argument:

The system is hopelessly gridlocked; the interim set-up has performed well; let’s not be in a hurry and get into the same mess all over again. What’s the hurry, everyone?

It isn’t terribly difficult to imagine what an agreeable judgement, once the inevitable challenge is filed in court, would look like.

And at that point, a fractured, regionalised electorate could even become the final helpful piece — because more straightforward results in the provincial assemblies would allow them to carry on.

There’s no constitutional requirement that provincial assemblies have to be in sync with the National Assembly or even that one assembly held in abeyance would effect the existence of the other assemblies.

Preposterous, you’re thinking.

Maybe. But that is the point. Gridlock, deadlock, systemic uncertainty — even from that can be fashioned the desired outcome.

Heads, the boys win; tails, the politicians lose. It’s the only thing that never seems to change.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2018