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Pakistan’s legacy parties in talks for coalition that would keep Imran Khan from power

With Pakistan’s political future still in the balance four days after its general election, the country’s two traditional major parties have opened talks about forming a coalition that would keep independents backed by Imran Khan out of government – despite them winning the most seats.

Candidates running with the support of Khan’s PTI party claimed 95 seats, while the incumbent coalition parties of PML-N and PPP won 75 and 54 seats respectively.

With all parties falling well short of the 133 required for a majority in the national assembly, a coalition of some kind is now inevitable. PTI supporters protested on the streets on Monday at the idea that the parties that ousted Mr Khan in 2022 could again come together to form a government.

Mr Khan remains in jail and his party was prevented from contesting the election directly, making it all the more remarkable that their candidates still came out as the largest grouping. The treatment of PTI by the authorities has been widely condemned internationally, and has significantly dented trust in last Thursday’s general election.

A blackout of the internet on the day of voting and lengthy delays in the count have also added to suspicions about the fairness of the election. PTI says it is contesting around 100 seats where its independents lost, with around 20 cases filed with the election commission, as of Monday this week.

PML-N believes it is still in the strongest position to install its leader Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. Senior politician Azam Nazeer Tarar told reporters that it was “in the largest interest of the country that all should join hands” to form a coalition under its leadership. “There’s only the possibility of forming the government with the backing of the PML-N. It will be a participatory coalition government,” he said.

Analysts say it is difficult to see a route for PTI to form the government despite controlling 95 seats, and that it will most likely form a strong opposition instead.

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington DC-based Wilson Center, wrote on Twitter/X: “PTI has earned a public mandate to govern. But it’s all but assured Pakistan’s next ruling coalition will look a lot like the previous one, a PDM redux led by PML-N and PPP and some smaller parties. [The PDM, or Pakistan Defence Movement, was a coalition formed in 2020 to oppose the military and then prime minister Khan]. PTI defied the odds in recent days, but it appears headed for the opposition.”

He added: “It’ll be tough for PTI to keep all its victorious sponsored independents on side. They’ll be under pressure by the military to align with different parties. PTI will also struggle to find coalition partners, who may fear repercussions from a military that wants PTI to be isolated.”

PPP, led by the 35-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, said its central executive committee was convening on Monday in Islamabad to discuss PML-N’s offer to form a coalition, but senior PPP politician Sherry Rehman told the BBC that the party’s doors remain open to talks with all political forces.

Analyst Ayesha Jalal told the Associated Press that a coalition government at the federal level is unavoidable. “And this is where things get tricky. Pakistan is now entering an uncertain scenario, which is, in effect, a post-election political crisis. Coalitions are not uncommon in Pakistan’s politics, but they are not easy to manage. They can become unwieldy, weak and prone to manipulation,” she said.

“It also makes it far harder for any government to push through the kind of bold economic packages needed for the country to move forward and escape the deep structural problems that are ailing the economy. A split national assembly and weak government plays into the military’s hands.”

Additional reporting with agencies