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Sunday April 14, 2024

A wobbly coalition

The recent election of February 8 underscores the inherent unpredictability in relying on anecdotal political insights

By I Hussain
February 25, 2024
PPP leaders Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and former president Asif Ali Zardari along with PML-N leader Shahbaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz can be seen discussing issues during a meeting on February 5, 2022. — X/MediaCellPPP
PPP leaders Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and former president Asif Ali Zardari along with PML-N leader Shahbaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz can be seen discussing issues during a meeting on February 5, 2022. — X/MediaCellPPP

The results of the 2024 election must have been the worst failure of political intelligence since the 1970 election in which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman bagged the majority of seats in the National Assembly of a then undivided Pakistan. At that time many observers were predicting a hung parliament with no party having a clear majority which would allow the then president Yahya Khan to act as kingmaker.

This misapprehension about the 1970 general election, which has been deemed by many as the most transparent and unbiased electoral process in Pakistan’s history, led to Bangladesh’s formation due to the central authority’s failure to respect the election results.

The recent election of February 8 underscores the inherent unpredictability in relying on anecdotal political insights, particularly with the evolving dynamics of voter behavior and the influence of social media on electoral participation.

The soon-to-be-formed coalition government led by the PML-N confronts multiple challenges, primarily in managing the economy which will be even tougher to contend with because of questions about its political legitimacy. Compounded by allegations of bogus votes, the PML-N will be hamstrung in its appeal to the population to support major reform measures.

The coalition government’s minority standing will significantly hinder the coalition’s ability to implement necessary IMF-recommended economic reforms amidst anticipated widespread protests and legislative opposition.

Further complicating the coalition’s governance are the inevitable internal disputes over policy priorities in a constrained fiscal environment, risking government paralysis due to infighting.

Additionally, external pressures from powerful quarters will likely exacerbate the coalition’s challenges, a factor contributing to Nawaz Sharif’s decision against assuming the prime ministerial role, reflecting political sagacity on his part.

On the other hand, the IMF’s involvement may offer Shehbaz Sharif a pretext to resist coalition partners’ extravagant demands, ostensibly to adhere to fiscal discipline, even if alternative options exist.

Internationally, Shehbaz Sharif’s engagements will be met with mixed receptions, with autocratic regimes showing warmth, in contrast to the scepticism he may face in Western capitals, particularly regarding electoral integrity and Imran Khan’s legal troubles. Given Imran Khan’s significant international support, Sharif’s visits to Western cities are likely to be marred by protests, necessitating a cautious approach and enhanced security measures.

The split mandate and deep national divisions call for a non-political figurehead to symbolize national unity. Drawing inspiration from figures like Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Leopold Senghor of Senegal, Pakistan would have benefited from a president with a non-political background, such as a distinguished literary or academic personality who could transcend partisan politics and embody the federations’ unity. Such a paradigm shift towards appointing a non-political figure as president could potentially harmonize a fragmented political landscape, reflecting the ethos of esteemed intellectuals like Havel and Senghor, who transcended political divisions through their moral and cultural stature.

Similarly, India’s choice of distinguished scholars like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain as presidents during pivotal moments in its history served to elevate the office of the presidency beyond the vicissitudes of political tussles, thereby enriching the nation’s democratic fabric.

Article 41 of Pakistan’s constitution delineates the qualifications necessary for an individual to be elected as president. It states: “A person shall not be qualified for election as president unless he is a Muslim of not less than forty-five years of age and is qualified to be elected as member of the National Assembly”.

Specifically, Section 2 of Article 41 states that a candidate must be a Muslim, at least 45 years of age, and must possess the qualifications to be elected as a member of the National Assembly. Importantly, it does not mandate that the individual must currently be, or have been, a member of the National Assembly or any provincial assembly, but merely that they should be eligible to be elected as such.

This provision opens the door for a broader interpretation of eligibility allowing for the possibility of electing a president with a non-political background. This could include persons who have made significant contributions to fields such as literature, education, or other areas of Pakistan’s national development and who have the respect and recognition of the public for their record.

The election of a non-political figure to the Presidency could serve as a unifying force, particularly in times of political fragmentation and when the government is perceived as weak or unrepresentative of the broader electorate.

Choosing a president from outside the political sphere could help transcend partisan divides and reinforce the president’s role as a symbol of the state’s unity and continuity. Such a figure could embody the collective aspirations and values of the nation, drawing upon their moral authority and the respect they command across different segments of society.

For Pakistan, electing a president with a distinguished record in literature, education, or another significant field could also serve to elevate the national discourse and inspire a renewed focus on these critical areas of development. It could signal a commitment to the ideals of knowledge, culture, and public service, offering a model of leadership that contrasts with the often transactional nature of political wheeling and dealing.

In summary, while the constitution sets out basic eligibility criteria for the Presidency, there is scope within these provisions to consider candidates from outside the traditional political elites and/or dynasties. Such an approach could offer a fresh perspective on governance and leadership in Pakistan, providing an opportunity for the country to rally around a figure known for their contributions to the country.

While the political parties will be reluctant to cede ground on this issue, it is left to the unelected powers to point the way for making the president a truly non-political figure. Thus the names of two or three persons who have made significant contributions to Pakistan’s cultural and educational discourse should be put before the electoral college comprising the two houses of parliament and the four provincial assemblies. The members of the electoral college should then cast their vote according to their choice of whom they deem most worthy to take up the mantle of the Presidency.


The writer is a group director at the Jang Group. He can be reached at: iqbal.hussain@janggroup.com.pk