GE-2024: strategic missteps by PML-N and PPP

By: Anish Mishra

Since Imran Khan’s ascension to Prime Minister in 2018, Pakistan’s political landscape has metamorphosed from a disparate multi-party system into a division of the electorate into two camps: the pro-Imran Khan Camp and the anti-Imran Khan Camp. The recent general election was clearly a failed attempt by invisible forces to revive the two-party system in Pakistan which was prevalent during the 1990s. The two-dominant party system gradually decayed due to the effects of performing political experiments resulting in the creation of a metaphorical ‘Frankenstein monster’. The reason for this failure to resurrect the two-dominant party system is that while the pro-Imran Khan Camp appears to be consolidated despite betrayals and setbacks, the anti-Imran Khan Camp remains disorganised and disunited within a large range of political parties including those with no seats in any of the legislative chambers.

In my article published in The Express Tribune on 9 May 2022, titled ‘Why a pre-poll alliance is a sine qua non to stop IK rise to power’, I cautioned against the major electoral advantage the PTI would gain in the absence of a pre-poll alliance between the PML-N and PPP. I suggested that the PML-N, PPP, MQM-P and others should form a pre-poll coalition with a seat adjustment formula in place to contest the 2024 general election, emphasising on the strategy of leveraging Pakistan’s First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) electoral system for a resounding victory.

However, my wise counsel fell on deaf ears. The PML-N, PPP and other parties opted to proceed without a pre-poll alliance. This decision has resulted in a hung parliament, with PTI-backed Independent candidates emerging as the single largest bloc, claiming 93 seats. Moreover, other Independents garnered 8 seats, while PML-N secured 75 seats, PPP 54 seats and MQM-P 17 seats, and the remanding seats were won by other parties. Though this may not secure a majority government for the PTI, it positions the party as a formidable opposition force.

The PTI was evidently the biggest beneficiary of a Bellum omnium contra omnes (war of all against all) Hobbesian style of electoral contest in the 2024 general election. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, preached that “victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” Had the PML-N and PPP joined forces in a pre-poll electoral alliance, they would have followed the path of “victorious warriors” who secured their triumph before engaging in battle. Instead, their decision to forgo a pre-poll alliance left them vulnerable, akin to “defeated warriors” who entered the electoral arena ill-prepared and in disarray, while expecting to win at the same time. A pre-poll alliance could have maximised their electoral prospects and positioned themselves for a landslide victory which would have triggered an existential crisis for the PTI.

The gamble taken by the PML-N and PPP is apparent, as the outcome could have turned against them, to the extent of potentially paving the way for PTI-backed independent candidates to form a majority government sans coalition partners. If the PML-N and PPP, alongside others, contested the 2024 general election collectively, they could have garnered a more substantial majority and potentially formed a stable government. The decision of contesting the 2024 general election without a pre-poll alliance was not worth the political risk given that the stakes are now higher than ever.

In the aftermath of the 2024 general election, the political terrain has undergone a seismic shift, unveiling the ramifications of landmark decisions to be made by key political parties. Despite confronting significant obstacles, such as the imprisonment and disqualification of top PTI leaders including Imran Khan and Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the proscription of the PTI’s electoral symbol “cricket bat” by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), PTI-backed independent candidates clinched victory in 93 constituencies. This achievement is noteworthy, given the opposition from key state institutions. Nevertheless, the relatively free and fair nature of this election compared to previous elections in Pakistan is underscored by numerous instances of defeated candidates gracefully conceding to the victors.

Imran Khan’s incarceration and debarment during the recent election further underscored his role as a persona non grata for the security establishment and both the PML-N and the PPP, the two grand old parties of Pakistan with a long history. Their relations are often quid pro quo in nature, with coalitions forming when faced with a common adversary, such as Imran Khan or General Musharraf in the 2008 general election. However, once the common enemy is defeated, the parties often find themselves at odds with each other, hindering the prospects of long-term stability and thus leading to regime oscillations.

The perception that Imran Khan had been vanquished a priori to the elections may have fostered over-optimism and opportunistic behaviour, resulting in the failure to forge a pre-poll alliance. Nonetheless, there is a compelling case for a long-term alliance between the PML-N and PPP supported by their joint commitment towards the Charter of Democracy. Under such an arrangement, the PPP would assume the mantle of the Sindh fratres of the PML-N, while the PML-N should be regarded as the Punjab Chapter of the PPP.

This form of an alliance would transmute Pakistan’s elite configuration from disunity to unity, furnishing a stable foundation for governance. A pre-poll alliance between the PML-N and PPP could incorporate a rotational system for the Presidency and Prime Ministership, ensuring equitable representation for both parties. Additionally, apportioning key positions such as Senate Chairman and National Assembly Speaker among coalition partners from smaller parties especially those hailing from Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa could foster inclusivity and regional representation.

In conclusion, the 2024 general election in Pakistan serves as a sui generis reminder of the necessity of strategic alliances in politics. Neglecting pre-poll alliances can yield significant repercussions, precipitating a status quo ante bellum (the situation as it existed before the war) political outcome, impeding the prospects of regime stability in Pakistan.

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