With no single party winning a majority, coalition talks and horse-trading will determine Pakistan's next government

A strong showing for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has thrown a wrench in the military-backed establishment’s plan to secure a government led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). While the PML-N will still likely come into power, its ability to claim popular support and democratic legitimacy will constantly be thrown into question due to the PTI’s popularity. The PTI is likely to use its popular support to position itself as the voice of the people and question the military’s role in national politics. This will result in large-scale demonstrations, protests, and constant clashes between the PTI and the military, no matter which parties form the government.

These conditions will dampen Pakistan’s economic growth prospects over the course of 2024–2025. Lack of political stability will hinder economic activity, weaken domestic sentiment, and trouble Pakistan’s foreign creditors. While the Pakistani rupee has remained stable so far, there is a greater risk of FX depreciation along with domestic political instability. Most importantly, an unstable political environment will jeopardize Pakistan’s ability to negotiate a long-term deal with the IMF. While the country was able to secure a short-term bailout last year, these funds are expected to run out by Q3 2024. As soon as they take power, Pakistan’s new leaders will have to begin drafting a new deal with the IMF and demonstrate their ability to effectively manage the fragile economy while executing economic reforms consistently. This will be a very tall order amid the current political backdrop.


The final count of the February 8 elections has proven to be inconclusive. No party won the 134 seats necessary to form a majority in parliament, but the PML-N and the PTI both claimed victory. In the coming days, tense coalition negotiations and horse-trading are set to take place. Pakistan’s constitution requires a ruling bloc with the backing of a simple majority in parliament to take over the government by February 29. The most likely outcome is a coalition led by the PML-N and the People’s Power Party (PPP). This is because the PTI has stated that it will attempt to form the government on its own or sit in opposition. The PTI is also contesting the election results, citing the delayed vote count, disruption of internet services on polling day, and legal challenges faced by the party and its leader as evidence of electoral manipulation. PTI supporters have already begun legal proceedings to challenge the results in several constituencies and staged multiple protests to voice their frustrations.

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The PTI’s strong showing in the elections was truly remarkable. In the days leading up to the polls, the odds were completely stacked against the party: its charismatic leader jailed, the party symbol in dispute, party members forced to stand for elections as independent candidates under hastily fashioned symbols, and a host of other visible and hidden pressures. Despite all these obstacles, the PTI still emerged as Pakistan’s most popular political party with a dedicated group of supporters. These results are a popular rejection of the existing status quo led by the military-backed establishment. Despite the path being cleared for a victory for Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N, Pakistani voters opted out of the simple choice presented to them in favor of a vote for change.

Unfortunately, the path forward is not clear. The election is likely to result in one of two outcomes, neither of which will resolve Pakistan’s current political uncertainty: 

  • PML-N and PPP coalition: As mentioned, the most likely outcome is an alliance between the second and third most popular parties with the inclusion of other independent candidates and/or smaller parties like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). The PML-N and the PPP have stated their intention to form a government together, with Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother and previous interim PM, leading the coalition. These parties will likely have the backing of the military and find institutional support along the way. However, this is the exact scenario that the PTI and its supporters want to prevent. PTI supporters will likely stage continuous demonstrations and protests in opposition to this government, refuse to cooperate in parliament, and continue to contest the legitimacy of the election results in court. Moreover, the coalition will need to navigate internal conflicts as well. The PML-N and the PPP are not closely aligned on political issues; any alliance would be driven by necessity rather than unity of vision. To that effect, the PPP has stated that they will only support the PML-N on a case-by-case basis and will not hold any cabinet positions in a PML-N-led government. 
  • PTI-led coalition: While highly unlikely, the PTI’s status as the party with the greatest seat share puts it in a position to attempt to form a coalition with partners like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Majlis-e-Wahdat-Muslimeen (MWM). The PTI is already joining hands with these parties to form provincial governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, respectively. However, the PTI’s refusal to work with bigger parties like the PML-N and the PPP makes it practically impossible for the party to form a government at the national level unless it compromises on this position. Moreover, with Imran Khan in jail, such a coalition would also struggle with internal leadership challenges. Finally, the military would be against the formation of such a government and likely put up institutional roadblocks against it and consistently undermine it, if it did come into power. 

It is also important to mention that a cloud looms over all this political maneuvering: the possibility of military intervention. In both scenarios laid out above, there will be little hope for political stability given the shaky coalitions that would emerge. Despite the PML-N being the military’s preferred option in the short term, it is crucial to remember that it has clashed with the party and its senior leader, Nawaz Sharif, several times in the past. Moreover, in the past two years, since the ouster of Khan’s government, the military’s position has strengthened, it has been more actively involved in politics through caretaker governments, and it has taken on a greater role in policymaking. A breakdown of the coalitions listed above could again result in the military seizing control through a new caretaker government and indefinitely delaying another general election.

Whatever form Pakistan’s incoming government takes, the growing tension between the PTI and its frustrated voters on one hand, and the military-backed establishment on the other, will undermine that government’s operational capacity and generate serious political instability for the foreseeable future. The wide gap between the military’s desire to maintain the status quo, with it being the country’s most powerful institution, and the PTI desire for broader democratic reform will only continue to grow wider.

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