Only a short while ago, a widely shared view held that the newly formed government coalition in Islamabad was bound to be weak, unstable, and probably short lived. The populist opposition had outperformed expectations in the Feb. 8 elections, despite a heavy dose of fraud marring the voting process. The political elites were embarrassed by the success of Imran Khan-backed candidates’ claim to a plurality of the seats in the National Assembly. And the military, long known for its skill in choreographing elections, found its reputation stained. But in the weeks since the outcome of the vote was announced, the political landscape has rapidly changed. The country’s mainstream political elites have reasserted themselves. Joined in their determination to permanently remove former Prime Minister Khan from the political scene and stifle his populist movement, they have moved aggressively to take control of all the major institutions of government. While the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has its vulnerabilities and can expect Khan’s loyalists to try to revive their movement through street power, a civilian-military partnership has taken a series of strong steps designed to ensure political stability and gain the government a long lease in office.

The heavy hand

To begin with, the dual establishment has maneuvered to relegate Khan’s independently elected candidates’ seemingly formidable legislative bloc into a largely impotent minority. With leverage provided by the military, the government leadership managed, through legal maneuvering, to deny Khan’s National Assembly members their expected share of the 70 seats reserved for women and minorities. By reapportioning those seats to themselves, the establishment-supported parties were able to stitch together an eight-party alliance large enough to create a stable government as well as provide a two-thirds majority in the 336-member body — a count sufficient to amend the constitution and pass legislation without much hindrance from the opposition.

The cabinet, headed by returning Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, has already revealed its intention to enact three significant amendments, all designed to consolidate the central government’s power. One proposal would eliminate Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau, the controversial state institution that had disqualified leading figures in the PML-N and its coalition partner the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from holding public office on account of corruption. The government is also preparing to abolish the constitutional provision allowing for caretaker governments, which would give the current ruling team responsibility for conducting the next general elections and the means to manipulate their scheduling and the voting process. A third proposed amendment aims at strengthening local government bodies but leaves them subject to the control of the central authorities. These changes pair neatly with a previous PML-N-led interim government initiative that brought key development and economic decisions together in a Special Investment Facility Council (SIFC), a hybrid state institutional body, overseen in the main by Pakistan’s military.

The government’s determination to tighten its grip politically also extends to the federal system. Khan-backed candidates had succeeded in the February election to win control of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly and presumably provide a base from which to push back against the federal government. Chief Minister Ali Amin Khan Gandapur, known to be a staunch supporter of the former prime minister, has predictably advocated taking a hard line on working with the government in Islamabad. Yet given the province’s financial dependence and the central government’s control over much of its bureaucratic apparatus, Gandapur is to some degree compelled to comply with central government policies — otherwise, Islamabad could not only impede governance by provincial officials but also, if seriously challenged, exercise its ultimate constitutional authority to have its appointed governor assume rule over the province. As additional pressure, a pending government-initiated court case for corruption and vandalism against Gandapur could be used to remove him from office. Balochistan Province, which like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has a history of causing political problems for the central authorities, seems by contrast safely under control politically — even if militarily it suffers regular attacks from militant Baloch nationalist groups. Incumbent Chief Minister Sarfraz Bugti, well known for his military connections, has a record of suppressing anti-military establishment elements.

The new regime has moreover largely succeeded in capturing a judiciary that has a history of falling in line with strong executives. Although, during previous short-term elected and interim governments, the Supreme Court and the provincial courts had at times handed down rulings favoring Khan, as the political elites have consolidated power, the judiciary has more consistently fallen into line. The appointment of Qazi Faez Isa as the chief justice of the Supreme Court in September replaced a jurist often sympathetic to Khan and has led to significant changes in the court’s proceedings and decisions. Not only has the Supreme Court reversed and completely reneged on its previous orders, but it has also granted relief to political elites and the military establishment by lifting a lifetime ban on convicted PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif and restoring civilian trials to military courts. Many have questioned the judiciary’s controversial stance, alleging leniency toward Nawaz Sharif even as the courts cooperated in efforts to penalize Khan and dismantle the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) electoral infrastructure — suggesting that Justice Isa may be aligned with the military establishment. If this is true, then presumably the government can finally rely on a judiciary that will widely provide it with legal backing to pursue its objectives.

The new government’s selection of Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister has served to highlight the military’s ability to influence party politics. With the choice of Shehbaz, the generals found a way to block the position from going to his older brother Nawaz, whose long history with the military is fraught with conflict. At the same time, the top brass can be reasonably assured of a prime minister with whom they can have a good working relationship. One of Shehbaz Sharif’s earliest acts after taking the oath of office was to visit Army headquarters accompanied by key cabinet members. The new prime minister has already indicated his government’s intention to increase the military budget by an amount similar to the previous year’s hike of 16%. But in so doing, the cash-starved federal government is likely to renege on a promise to shift a greater share of the country’s financial resources to the provinces. The military’s expectation of a larger budget and an approving government could help explain the Army’s more aggressive moves against the Afghanistan-based terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in recent weeks as well as its tougher stance toward Kabul.

External approval

The new government has been boosted by the actions of external players who welcome the prospect of political stability returning to Pakistan after almost two years of turmoil. They have ignored the PTI’s pleas to foreign powers not to recognize Pakistan’s current regime or provide it with funding until the allegations of fraudulent national elections are investigated. Much of the international community has not only embraced the newly formed government but several key countries have also shown their readiness to provide resources.

The election outcome has understandably been welcome news to Saudi Arabia, whose monarchy has long maintained close ties to the Sharif family. The Saudi kingdom as well as the United Arab Emirates have reaffirmed their economic partnership with Pakistan by working with the military through its SIFC-provided mechanism. Pakistan’s Army Chief Asim Munir recently visited Riyadh to breathe new life into this vehicle for investment in Pakistan.

China, which has worried about political uncertainty and often lapsed security jeopardizing its financial stake in Pakistan, now also seems content with the military-approved regime. Beijing appears ready to go forward with Phase II of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of the effort to establish five special economic corridors within Pakistan. To ease pressure on the South Asian state’s ability to handle its external debt crisis, China has also agreed to roll back some loans due for repayment this year.

The Biden administration has signaled its approval of the new government as well. Even while the United States has announced its intention to monitor the Pakistan Election Commission’s hearing petitions challenging the February election, US Ambassador Donald Blome met with Prime Minster Sharif shortly after the latter took office to express America’s belief in Pakistan’s democracy and support for continued bilateral economic cooperation. There remains in place a proposed US-Pakistan Green Alliance framework that focuses on enhancing Pakistan’s climate resilience; it additionally seeks to promote smart agriculture meant to ensure food security and foster sustainable energy practices. Notably, this initiative aligns well with Pakistan’s own Army-led Green Initiative, aimed at modernizing the agricultural sector. This collaboration between the US administration and Pakistan’s military establishment complements their traditional security-focused relationship.

Regime longevity

The newly installed coalition government could be settling in for a lengthy tenure, and the country’s military may be feeling firmly back in the driver’s seat. Army Chief Munir has expressed confidence in the uninterrupted continuation of the current political system, enabling him to focus more on addressing Pakistan’s chronic challenges of economic instability and escalating insecurity. Talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose loans are so central to Pakistan’s economic viability, have just concluded a staff-level agreement to release $1.1 billion of a $3 billion arrangement. The IMF previously turned down Khan’s request that it withhold loans until the organization could conduct an audit of the Feb. 8 polls.

Yet there are portents of trouble ahead that could send Pakistan back into the political tangle from which it has so recently emerged. Figuring high among the threats faced by the current government is the need to satisfy the demands of the diverse parties that compose the coalition — demands that frequently involve trying to rectify the ongoing imbalance in fiscal resource distribution between federal and provincial governments. That task is not made any easier for a federal government faced with IMF pressure. Forcing Pakistan to privatize loss-making public entities, expand the tax base, and address fiscal deficits in revenue will require eliminating many popular subsidies and cutting development spending.

The recent promises of increased military spending offer a critical test for the federal government as it tries to navigate between the demands of its constituent political parties on the one hand and the military establishment on the other. The PPP, a leading coalition member with a strong base in Sindh, has taken up the cause of providing greater resources to the provinces and has condemned the proposed growth of the military budget. Other partners are likely to follow suit in pursuit of their own parochial interests. While the government leadership may succeed in consoling some parties, the military cannot be easily appeased; few privileges are more sacred than protecting the Armed Forces’ budget. These challenges may in the end present the current coalition government with a greater threat to its longevity than is posed by either a restive populist movement or terrorist and militant separatist groups.


Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum is the director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies Program at the Middle East Institute.

Naad-e-Ali Sulehria has over five years of involvement working with international organizations and think tanks in different capacities as a political researcher, policy advisor, peace strategist, and human rights practitioner. He currently serves as a Research Assistant to Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director for Pakistan and Afghanistan Studies at the Middle East Institute.

Photo by Pakistan Prime Minister Office/AFP via Getty Images

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