On a leash

Published February 22, 2024

IT is a done deal. Despite several hiccups and one party’s many ifs and buts, negotiations over the configuration of the next government concluded rather abruptly late Tuesday.

Under the understanding reached between the PPP and PML-N, Islamabad will get another coalition government headed by Shehbaz Sharif less than seven months after the last one was dissolved. PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari will be the PML-N and PPP’s joint nominee for president, the Speaker of the National Assembly will be from the PML-N, while the Senate chairmanship and the KP and Punjab governorships will go to the PPP.

The two parties will also jointly form a government in Balochistan. Though the spoils have been quite generously divided, the PPP’s support for the PML-N government will not be guaranteed in all matters.

Under what seems to be a confidence and supply arrangement, the PPP will vote with the PML-N only on motions of confidence and spending bills. For all else, the PML-N may be on its own.

Meanwhile, in its new incarnation as the Sunni Ittehad Council — and likely to emerge as the single largest party in the Lower House barring any further engineering — the PTI will sit on the opposition benches and is poised to take the opposition leader’s slot.

With legislative power thus distributed, this government will likely prove to be the most formidable political test faced yet by Mr Sharif, who ruled without any real opposition the last time around. And it won’t just be parliament that will be testing his mettle. His government is likely to face a public legitimacy crisis due to the circumstances in which it will come into being: it is already being accused of attempting to govern on a stolen mandate by parties that collectively represent the vast majority of those who voted on Feb 8.

Does Mr Sharif expect to deliver in such circumstances? His biggest task will be to clean out the Augean stables left behind by his own administration, especially where the economy is concerned.

With a vast section of the public angry over the election results and the citizenry in general nearly bankrupted by relentless inflation, he will not find it easy to introduce the much-needed major changes to the economy without running into resistance.

Considering the beating his party has taken in the polls, will his priority be to push ahead during such times at the expense of what little political capital it has left or to do what all politicians do when they realise their own interests are on the line, ie, find a short-term fix and leave the heavy lifting for whoever comes next?

Mr Sharif has said he wants to ‘save’ Pakistan. Many will be watching to see how long his resolve lasts.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2024

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