ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government suffered a combined blow as deposed premier Imran Khan renewed his demand for snap general elections after his party’s landslide victory in Sunday’s crucial bypolls to 20 assembly seats in Punjab province and the nation’s currency sagged to an all-time low against the US$ in interbank trade Monday.
As the government grappled with runaway inflation and an energy crisis, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) handed out the worst defeat to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in Punjab, considered a stronghold of former three-time PM Nawaz Sharif and his family that includes his brother and current PM Shehbaz. Khan’s party took 15 seats, the PML-N secured four and one went to an independent candidate.
“The only way forward from here is to hold fair and free elections under a credible ECP (election commission of Pakistan). Any other path will only lead to greater political uncertainty and further economic chaos,” said Khan, who was ousted as PM after he lost a trust vote in parliament on April 10.
The PM’s spokesperson Malik Ahmad Khan told PTI news agency that the PML-N leadership will decide by consulting its allies about dissolving the National Assembly and calling early elections.
The demand for elections before time (polls are due by October 2023) has been one of key pressure points of Khan against the Shehbaz-led coalition that is navigating a nation through its worst economic pain. Khan said PML-N is now left with only one option: “immediately call for fresh general elections”.
Experts considered the bypoll results as a foretaste of deepening political instability. They cited the Pakistani currency’s slide against the dollar as an indicator. The dollar was sold for Pakistani Rs 215.25 Monday—Rs 4.3 higher than last week’s Rs 210.95.
The result in Punjab is a major blow for PM Sharif, who leads the PML-N, and whose son Hamza Shehbaz is all set to lose his post as CM of Pakistan’s most populous province. Hamza’s chances of winning re-election for the post on July 22 hang by a thread.
Saad bin Naseer, director of Mettis Global, a web-based financial data and analytics portal, said the bypoll results had raised concerns about the future of the coalition government.
Analyst Komal Mansoor said the rupee had nosedived because of Sunday’s elections. “The PTI’s win has cast doubt on the sustainability of the current government and the sentiment has again turned negative,” she said.
Until mid-April, Punjab was governed by PTI and its coalition partners. Following the removal of Khan’s government that month, his party’s CM Usman Buzdar resigned. The move paved the way for the PML-N to put Hamza as CM with the support of two-dozen dissident PTI lawmakers.
The PTI successfully petitioned the EC to unseat the legislators who voted against the party and violated the country’s anti-defection laws. That left 20 Punjab seats vacant for which voting was held Sunday.
Khan had vigorously campaigned against his party’s turncoats, drawing tens of thousands of people to his rallies. He accused the coalition government of conspiring with the powerful military and the US to oust him from office. The people believed him, if the results were any indication. His “jihad” against dynastic politics of former PM Nawaz Sharif and ex-president Asif Ali Zardari further boosted his image among the masses.
“If the new beleaguered government was looking for a boost to its mandate, it clearly didn’t get it,” tweeted Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asian affairs at Washington’s Wilson Center. “Now it’s stuck with a free-falling economy, it lacks a public mandate, and it confronts a galvanized opposition.”