Pakistan Political Forecast
Domestic political pressure on the government persists, and the possibility remains that the prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, may be ousted. Government effectiveness is also low, and it could worsen further as a consequence of the current political uncertainty. The likelihood of an early general election has increased significantly (the poll does not have to be held until February 2013). The killing by US special forces of Osama bin Laden, the founder and leader of the al-Qaida global terrorist network, in Pakistan in 2011 and allegations that the country’s main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has been involved in terrorist attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan have refocused international attention on the willingness and ability of Pakistan’s government and its agencies to combat Islamist terrorism.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which heads the ruling coalition, performed well in elections for the Senate (the upper house of parliament) in March. This will provide some comfort to the government, which has lurched from crisis to crisis in the past year. Constitutional amendments—a regular feature of the political landscape in recent years—require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, and the PPP’s strong representation in the Senate will protect the party’s position even if it loses its majority in the National Assembly (the lower house) at the next general election. However, the result of the upper house poll does not imply a renewed popular mandate for the government, as senators are elected indirectly.
Meanwhile, following a protracted legal battle, Mr Gilani was convicted of contempt charges by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in late April. The court had ordered Mr Gilani to write to officials in Switzerland in order to reopen a corruption case against the president, Asif Ali Zardari (also of the PPP), but Mr Gilani refused to do so. The prime minister contended that Mr Zardari enjoyed immunity from prosecution while in office. The court gave Mr Gilani a symbolic sentence lasting only a few minutes (the charges carried a penalty of up to six months in prison). However, the outcome is likely to increase political instability in Pakistan in the short term. The PPP has thrown its support behind Mr Gilani, while opposition parties have called for the government to step down and early elections to be held. Although the current parliamentary term expires only in March 2013, the opposition is understandably keen to exploit the government’s weakness and has repeatedly called for elections to be held well before this deadline.
In the event that Mr Gilani is removed from office, the PPP may well be able to avert the government’s collapse by electing another leader. The PPP itself has 125 seats in the 335member National Assembly, while the governing coalition as a whole holds 216 seats. Nevertheless, the risk that the government could collapse cannot be ruled out, largely because political alliances are mercurial and opportunistic. For example, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a liberal party, has repeatedly left and rejoined the government since the beginning of 2011. The Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-iAzam), or PML (Q), which was in opposition from the time of its defeat in the 2008 general election until May 2011, is a PPP ally at present, but the PML (Q) and the PPP have historically been adversaries, and the former’s continued support for the government is therefore not assured. The PPP will continue to prioritise the preservation of the ruling coalition over other considerations. Its focus on survival in office will remain paramount as long as it remains under pressure from both the judiciary and the army, as it has in recent months.
Pakistan has a long history of military coups, having been ruled by generals for around one-half of its existence as an independent country. Thus, the possibility that continued bungling by the government might prompt the army to reassert itself politically cannot be discounted. However, under the leadership of General Ashfaq Kayani, the military has withdrawn from direct participation in politics. Moreover, the circumstances surrounding the killing of Mr bin Laden have badly undermined the position of the army and that of the ISI. Despite the recent further deterioration in relations between the army and the government, the Economist Intelligence Unit therefore judges the risk of a military takeover in the coming months to be relatively low.
The US will remain an important source of military and civil aid to Pakistan. However, the bilateral relationship, which has been volatile in recent years, deteriorated throughout 2011, and the death of 26 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike in November has led to a re-evaluation of the relationship by both sides. In the forecast period ties will be more overtly transactional, as the idea of a broad strategic partnership has been severely undermined. In this context, Pakistan will welcome further offers of investment and aid from China, a relatively uncritical ally. The fact that both Pakistan and China see neighbouring India as an adversary will continue to underpin their friendship.
A number of recent events, including a visit by Mr Zardari to India in early April, have raised hopes of an improvement in relations between Pakistan and India. Bilateral dialogue is expected to continue, albeit subject to the vagaries of domestic politics in both countries. Long-standing issues—including crossborder terrorism and the status of disputed territories—remain unresolved, however, and we therefore do not expect a breakthrough in relations during 2012-16.
The next general election must be held by February 2013, but the government is extremely weak and has come under strong domestic pressure, so that speculation is rife that it will not last its full term. We expect the poll to be held in the fourth quarter of 2012. Pakistan’s political landscape can change significantly within the space of a few months, but it is likely that the contest will be primarily a tussle between the two largest parties, the PPP and the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML (N). The two parties co-operated in February to pass the 20th amendment to the constitution, which provides for a caretaker government (to be appointed by an independent election commission) to oversee polls. This will prevent the current administration from overseeing the election.
In recent months the main political parties have started positioning themselves ahead of the general election; recent rallies organised by the PML (N) and a small opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), signalled the de facto start of campaigning. The popularity of the PTI, which is led by a former captain of the national cricket team, Imran Khan, has surged since late 2011, and the party’s legitimacy was given a major boost in November 2011 when the previous foreign minister, Mehmood Qureshi, joined its ranks, after having been a member of the PPP since 1980. It is highly unlikely that the PTI could muster enough support to win the general poll outright, but it could present a genuine challenge to the PPP if it allies itself with another, larger opposition party.