Fake campaign. Fake election. Fake government, says a Pakistani political analyst tersely, summing up Pakistan’s elections last week. No good government, he adds, can emerge from such a rotten election during which rigging was taken as far as it could go.

In the immediate future, two options open up. With a coalition government, created by a shotgun wedding which brings together rivals who detest each other, the man holding the shotgun will, of course, be army chief Asim Munir. The supposed allies will squabble incessantly and the army will make no secret of the fact it’s ruling in all but name.

Alternatively, there’s the street option. Imran Khan is still in jail but he could whip his followers into a frenzy about what everyone unanimously agrees is a clumsily rigged election. If mobs come out in vast numbers, all bets are off.

Where does all this leave the army, once Pakistan’s most loved institution that could always be relied on when politicians failed, as they invariably did? The army’s efforts to retain power have pushed it into a corner where it’s now deeply hated by a large chunk of the population who believe Imran Khan is the messiah to resolve Pakistan’s problems.

Short of a mass street upsurge, it looks as if Nawaz Sharif, twice toppled from his prime ministerial throne by the army, is the frontrunner to regain the throne. There are many suggesting Nawaz should do the honourable thing and decline the job after an election he so clearly didn’t win. This possibility seems about as likely as spotting the Yeti on one of Pakistan’s many mountains. Munir put it bluntly, saying the nation needed: “stable hands and a healing touch to move on from the politics of polarisation.”

Initially, it looked certain Nawaz would be the anointed successor. But now the Bhuttos are muscling in with their own claims. They’re also looking to tie-up with smaller independent parties and stake a claim for the top job. Most analysts reckon the Bhuttos may settle for the presidency and the foreign ministry.

But whoever takes over must figure how to rescue Pakistan’s wrecked economy. In March, Pakistan faces another humiliating begging bowl session with the IMF. It received $700 million in January but talks must take place before the next tranche is doled out. The IMF’s cash isn’t nearly enough to save Pakistan’s economy but the hope is an IMF green signal will persuade other lenders like Saudi Arabia to go easy on their claims. All this presupposes a central government will be in place by March and the three states where elections have just taken place.

The IMF will be asking wrenchingly tough questions but the greater ordeal will be facing Pakistan’s irate public, reeling from backbreaking 28 per cent inflation.

If crippling inflation isn’t bad enough, look at the Pakistan rupee which is in the dumps at rupees 279 to $1. Inevitably, this means imported commodities like oil and natural gas are stratospherically costly. Since Pakistan manufactures very little, imported goods are also impossibly expensive.

Take the automobile industry, for instance, where producers like Toyota, Honda and Suzuki have been forced to stamp on the brakes because Pakistan wasn’t issuing the letters of credit needed to import components. Toyota stopped production nine times in 2023. Rumours circulating claim Toyota and Honda are preparing to leave the country.

Relations with India

What does this chaos mean for India? The Pakistan Army’s last chief Qamar Bajwa appeared to have figured out it would be impossibly tough for Pakistan to take on an economically much more powerful India and seemed inclined to peace. Munir seems to favour peace less with Article 370’s abolition having shocked the Pakistan establishment. India will have to make the opening overtures if it wants peace. But with this mountain of economic problems it looks unlikely Nawaz, or anyone else, will take on the extra challenge of striking a lasting peace.

But the answer to Pakistan’s economic woes could lie in its relationship with India. The army must recognise the need to downsize its outsize spending and that means making peace with India. Better relations with India would also mean trade normalisation which would be good for both countries but more so for Pakistan.

Does this sound Utopian? The answer is sadly likely yes and the next prime minister will blunder along for the next two-three years until he’s replaced by someone else. And not to be forgotten is Imran Khan, who will hang like a gigantic shadow over the entire country. He may be down but he’s by no means out.