House of Commons Library

Pakistan: January 2018 update

Published Wednesday, January 24, 2018

National elections are due to be held in Pakistan in mid-2018. It will inevitably be a testing year for the country’s still-fragile democracy.

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The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) hopes to win a second consecutive term in office.

The party is highly unlikely to experience the same level of electoral devastation in 2018 that the incumbent government, the Pakistan People’s Party, suffered in 2013, when the PML-N swept to victory. Indeed, several analysts have predicted that it will win again. However, the PML-N could yet lose, or – this is more likely – fall short of a majority and need to find coalition partners to stay in power.  They may not be easy to find.

In July 2017 Nawaz Sharif was forced to resign as prime minister after being disqualified from public office by the country’s Supreme Court in connection with corruption allegations arising from the so-called ‘Panama Papers’ – a development which many observers believe was instigated by the military, with which Sharif has long had poor relations. However, Nawaz has now re-emerged as party leader. His brother, Shabhaz, is the PML-N’s candidate for prime minister in the forthcoming elections.

Rival political groupings are threatening the PML-N’s hold over key political constituencies, not least in Punjab, the country’s biggest and most prosperous state. Here too, some see the hand of the military.

Meanwhile, although there has overall been an improvement in the domestic security situation, extremist groups like the Pakistani Taliban continue to carry out terrorist operations. The north-western tribal areas and Pakistan’s biggest province, Balochistan, remain restive. There has been a near-breakdown of law and order in the Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. Human Rights Watch has recently warned of growing threats to freedom of association and expression.

The army chief of staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa has said that Pakistan faces “monumental challenges” this year.

At the international level, 2018 has already seen further turbulence in the relationship between Pakistan and traditionally its closest (but often uneasy) international ally, the US. On 2 January, President Donald Trump used trademark colourful language to throw serious doubt on future US military funding for Pakistan unless Pakistan took serious action against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which parts of the security establishment have long sponsored. Both groups continue to wage war against the US-backed Afghan government and have ‘headquarters’ in Pakistan’s borderlands with Afghanistan.

A tranche of US security aid worth US$255 million has now been suspended. Pakistan has responded by suspending intelligence-sharing with the US.

The US, along with other Western allies, are also highly concerned about the prospect that Lashkar-e-Taiba (now called Jamaat-ud-Dawa), whose leader was released from detention last year, may be allowed to contest the national elections.

In this context, Pakistan’s close ties with China may become more important than ever. Relations with India remain fraught.

For further background on Pakistan’s politics, economy and society see the following Library briefing papers:

Pakistan in 2013 (December 2012);

Pakistan: November 2015 update.

 

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