A weak coalition government in Pakistan will find it hard to stabilize relations with its neighbours

The new government in Islamabad will seek to renew ties with China, while dealing with a third Modi government, a hostile Afghanistan – and its own military.

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The dust has yet to settle on Pakistan’s election. The official results show that independent candidates aligned to the PTI – the party of Imran Khan – have performed better than anticipated despite Khan’s arrest and conviction. This belies the initial belief that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – the party of the Sharif brothers (Nawaz and Shehbaz) – would lead the next government. 

The PTI and PML-N both claim victory, but neither has yet secured the requisite numbers to form a government on its own. This increases the probability that a messy coalition government is formed after an extended period of horse-trading. In this context, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – the party of the Bhutto-Zardari family – is likely to play a crucial role with the possibility of a power-sharing arrangement with the PML-N.

Pakistan’s Army Chief Asim Munir has called on the country to move on from the politics of ‘anarchy and polarization,’ indicating that the military will try to break the deadlock by propping up a government led by its preferred party(currently the PML-N). Doing so would reaffirm the perennial role of the so-called ‘establishment’ (Pakistan’s military and intelligence services) in pulling the strings of politics. 

However, it would also further undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process, which had already been tarnished by slower than anticipated vote counting, the disruption of mobile and internet services on election day and a string of terrorist attacks in the run-up to the polls. 

The establishment has long called the shots on issues of foreign policy and national security, and increasingly economic policy. 

A weak coalition government with limited legitimacy will struggle to secure consensus on politically sensitive reforms, from expanding the tax base to privatising loss-making state-owned enterprises. This will pose a significant challenge as the incoming government seeks to fulfil difficult austerity measures as part of the country’s 23rd stand-by-arrangement (SBA) with the IMF.

Despite the possibility of a prolonged period of instability, there is greater clarity on the country’s post-election foreign policy. The establishment has long called the shots on issues of foreign policy and national security, and increasingly economic policy. This ensures a degree of continuity, but also reveals areas of potential friction with the incoming government. 

This was evident in remarks by Asim Munir ahead of the election. ‘Afghanistan can be dammed’ he said, when it comes to the safety and security of Pakistani citizens – while Pakistan cannot reconcile with India because ‘India has not reconciled with the concept of Pakistan.’ In response to recent clashes with Iran, Munir referred to Pakistan’s ‘befitting reply’ to Tehran’s actions to ‘backstab us’. 

As well as warning to Pakistan’s neighbours, these statements can be seen as the military laying down red lines for the incoming administration in Islamabad. 

India

Of all Pakistan’s neighbours, relations with India appear most stable. A limited ceasefire has remained in place along the Line of Control demarcating their disputed territory in Kashmir since 2021. 

The possibility of another Sharif administration had raised hopes of improved relations with New Delhi although a weaker coalition government – particularly one that is beholden to the PPP – will reduce the likelihood of any rapprochement with India.

In his third term, Modi may seek to cement his legacy by resolving tensions with Pakistan, as previous Indian prime ministers have sought to do. 

Sharif has historically sought a better relationship with India, but this has also been his Achilles heel. Sharif was removed in a military coup in October 1999, eight months after India and Pakistan sought to improve relations as part of the then ‘Lahore Bus diplomacy’. Upon his return to Pakistan in October, Sharif made a speech where he noted renewed ambitions to improve the relationship. Whether the establishment will permit this remains to be seen.

Another watchpoint will be India’s response to any Pakistani overtures. India goes to the polls later this year with the near certainty of a third term government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 
An emboldened Modi government with a strengthened mandate may pursue a more assertive approach towards Pakistan. A surge of communal (religious) unrest within India, targeting its Muslim minority population, could also enflame tensions. 

At the same time, in his third (and possibly final) term, Modi may seek to cement his legacy by resolving tensions with Pakistan, as previous Indian prime ministers have sought to do. 

Kashmir remains a persistent thorn in the bilateral relationship, enflamed by New Delhi’s decision to rescind the special autonomous status of the state in 2019. 

This is unlikely to be reversed, with India’s Supreme Court upholding the decision in a ruling in December. However, the verdict also called for statehood to be reinstated ‘at the earliest,’ as well as elections to be held by September this year. This may pave the way for a resumption of dialogue. However, the situation remains highly fluid. In a climate of hyper-nationalism, all it would only take is another high-profile terrorist attack on India to see a resumption of hostilities.

Afghanistan

Pakistan is unlikely to enjoy any improvement in ties with Afghanistan. Contrary to expectations, bilateral relations deteriorated after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, as the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) stepped up terrorist attacks inside Pakistan following the US and NATO withdrawal. 

 Islamabad has arguably lost some of its strategic significance in the West following the US/ NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The bad blood has been exacerbated by the forced migration of almost half a million Afghan refugees following a directive by the Pakistani government to deport ‘illegal foreigners’ residing in the country last year. 

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At the root of hostilities is the intractable issue of the disputed Durand Line, which marks the 2,600km border between both countries. This is not a new issue: Afghanistan was the only country to oppose Pakistan’s admission to the United Nations in 1947 on the grounds of their boundary dispute. As such, relations are unlikely to improve. Instead, there is a very real possibility of an escalation of hostilities.   

US

Another key foreign policy challenge facing the new government is navigating tensions in the US–China relationship. Islamabad has arguably lost some of its strategic significance in the West following the US/ NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Western governments have also been highly critical of the conduct of Pakistan’s electoral process.

However, Asim Munir’s visit to Washington, DC in December highlights that US–Pakistan engagement remains intact despite the burgeoning US–India relationship. 

Islamabad will be eager to stay on good terms with Washington as the largest shareholder in the IMF, with the current SBA expiring in April. 

Current tensions in the Middle East may also open new areas of cooperation, facilitated by Pakistan’s own difficult relations with Iran. 

China

Finally, reviving relations with China will be a key priority. Officially, Islamabad and Beijing remain ‘all weather’ allies, but relations have cooled as China’s flagship infrastructure initiative in Pakistan – the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – has stalled amid security concerns and Beijing’s more risk averse outbound investment. A third of Pakistan’s total external debt is also owed to China. 

Nonetheless, the incoming government will seek to renew the relationship, seek financial support to avoid a default on its $100 billion foreign debt obligations, and renew their relationship as a bulwark against their common rival, India. 

Ultimately, Pakistan’s dire economic and security situation dictates that it stabilizes relations with China, the US and Arab Gulf states while de-escalating tensions with its neighbours. 

Achieving this will always be challenging for a government maintaining dual leadership with the military establishment, let alone a weak coalition with limited legitimacy – which will almost certainly be the case for Pakistan’s next administration.