GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 820, 4 March 2024

Shehbaz Sharif: New Prime Minister, Old Issues
D Suba Chandran

On 3 March 2024, Shehbaz Sharif was elected by the newly convened National Assembly, as the prime minister. Of the total 336 seats, 305 voted (the rest are yet to take the oath, as the reserved seats are yet to be filled), of which Shehbaz secured 201 votes against PTI-backed Omar Ayub, who got only 92 votes. The difference between Shehbaz and his PTI opponent should indicate that the lead for the PML-N government in the Parliament is comfortable. However, the issues that Shehbaz would face as the new PM are anything but comfortable.
Pakistan may have got a new PM. But the issues facing him are old and substantial.
First, the issue of coalition. With the PPP, MQM-P, PML-Q and IPP, it is not a natural and an easy coalition for the PML-N. There are serious differences between the PDM coalition members at the national and provincial levels. For example, between the PPP and PML-N at the national level, the PPP and MQM-P in Sindh, and the PML-N and PML-Q in Punjab. The tough dialogue between the PPP and PML-N before the consensus should underline that it would not be an easy task for Shehbaz to manage the coalition. Some even consider that Nawaz could not become the PM because of coalition differences. The absence of Fazlur Rahman and the JUI-F in the coalition indicates a large gap; Fazlur was an integral part of the PDM coalition which overthrew Imran Khan in April 2022.
Second, the PTI challenge. Imran Khan and the PTI in the opposition means an unstable Parliament. Omar Ayub’s speech following Shehbaz Sharif on 3 March should underline what the latter should expect. He is facing a hostile opposition that insists on a stolen vote by the PML-N (and the PPP and the MQM), and a rigged election. The PTI is likely to get back to container politics, as it did when it was the opposition.
Third, addressing the credibility question over the legitimacy of the entire election process. This question has been raised not only by the PTI; from media to regional political parties in Sindh and Balochistan, many have questioned the electoral process, polling and counting. Shehbaz will have to address the question and provide closure. Independent recommendations, for example from the FAFEN, have asked for an audit.
Fourth, Pakistan’s economy. Shehbaz himself underlined the state of economy, and the tough pills that Pakistan will have to take in bringing it back on track. The dialogue with the IMF needs to be taken forward; more importantly, he needs to walk the talk in prescribing the tough pill within. When faced with tough decisions, the governments have always opted out for an easy way that is populist. Shehbaz and the PML-N government will have to answer tough questions within, and with external funders.
Fifth, a working relationship with the Establishment. Shehbaz will have to avoid what happened between the then government (PTI) and the Establishment. Though the Establishment favoured the PTI in 2018, there was a falling out post-elections despite talking about being in the same page. In 2024, the Establishment has favoured the PML-N; though it has a better equation with Shehbaz, its relationship with Nawaz has been complicated. Some even consider that the choice of Shehbaz as the PM over Nawaz came from the Establishment, and the PML-N had to take the tough decision.
Sixth, the increasing popularity of Imran Khan and the PML-N’s decline in Punjab. Despite the political and electoral engineering, the 2024 elections belonged to Imran Khan and the PTI. While Shehbaz and the PML-N may have emerged victorious inside the Parliament and the votes there, he will have to win the hearts outside. This is especially true in Punjab, where the ground is slipping for the PML-N. Both the party and the Establishment could not have predicted the manner in which Punjab had voted for the PTI-backed independents. Perhaps, this is the only new issue, but an important challenge facing Shehbaz Sharif.
Seventh, Balochistan. In his victory speech, Shehbaz referred to the alienation in Balochistan. The recent long march of the Baloch people to Islamabad, the brutal response from the state, and the case of missing people in the province, are old issues with no easy answers.

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