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Pak Army chief backs ex-PM Nawaz Sharif's call to form coalition government

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Islamabad/Lahore, Feb 10 (PTI) Pakistan's powerful army chief Gen Asim Munir on Saturday urged the country's polarised political leadership to form a "unified government of all democratic forces", as he backed ex-premier Nawaz Sharif's plea to his rivals to help form a coalition government after the general elections appear to have produced a hung Parliament.

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Efforts to form a unity government gained momentum after the three-time former prime minister Sharif, who seems to enjoy the backing of the Pakistan Army, on Friday appealed to other political parties to join hands to pull cash-strapped Pakistan out of its current difficulties.

Springing a surprise, independents backed by jailed former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won the lion's share of 100 seats in the National Assembly in Thursday's election. Khan's party has already claimed victory in the elections.

The group was followed by Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) with 73 seats, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) with 54, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) with 17 and 11 other seats going to smaller parties, as the result of 255 seats out of 265 was announced by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

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To form a government, a party must win 133 seats out of 265 in the National Assembly. Election to one seat was postponed after the death of a candidate.

Overall, 169 seats are needed to secure a simple majority out of its total 336 seats, which include the reserved slots for women and minorities.

Votes are still being counted after the general election which was marred by allegations of rigging, sporadic violence and a countrywide mobile phone shutdown.

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On Saturday, a statement attributed to Gen Munir said, "Pakistan’s diverse polity and pluralism will be well-represented by a unified government of all democratic forces imbibed with national purpose." He said that elections and democracy are means to serve the people of Pakistan and not end in themselves.

The powerful Pakistan Army, which has ruled coup-prone Pakistan for more than half of its 75-plus years of existence, has hitherto wielded considerable power in matters of security and foreign policy. “The nation needs stable hands and a healing touch to move on from the politics of anarchy and polarisation which does not suit a progressive country of 250 million people. Elections are not a zero-sum competition of winning and losing but an exercise to determine the mandate of the people,” it said.

The army chief noted that the people of Pakistan reposed their combined trust in the Constitution of Pakistan and it was now “incumbent upon all political parties to reciprocate the same with political maturity and unity.” Meanwhile, Khan, 71, in an AI-generated audio-video message on Saturday claimed victory in the general elections.

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He thanked the people for voting for PTI and also asked them to ensure the sanctity of their votes was not hijacked by the establishment.

PTI Central Information Secretary Raoof Hasan said the party had already started the consultation process on its fut­ure course of action. However, he added, physical meetings have not been possible since most elected candidates are either in jail or underground.

He warned that any attempt to derail the people’s decision would have “deadly consequences”, adding that power-wielders must learn to respect the people’s choice.

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He said PTI had emerged as a leading political force in the Centre, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces, but efforts were underway to manipulate the results in the Centre and Punjab to establish governments of their choice.

“We will exercise all legal and constitutional rights to frustrate all bids to tamper with the election results.” Meanwhile, analysts noted that even if Sharif's PML-N and the PPP led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari get a majority of the remaining seats of the results yet to be announced they will still require support from other winning parties/independents to form a government.

The two parties are making efforts to form a coalition government. PPP chief Bilawal, 35, and his father Asif Ali Zardari held separate meetings with 74-year-old Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother Shehbaz.

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"Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif had a one-on-one meeting at Jati Umra in which both discussed forming a coalition government in Islamabad," a PMLN leader told the Press Trust of India.

He said both PML-N and PPP are in a comfortable position to form the government with the help of small parties while the PTI will be pushed to sit on opposition benches.

Separately, Bilawal and Zardari met with Shehbaz at the residence of Punjab caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi.

Shehbaz also telephoned JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and MQM head Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui and discussed the prospects of the formation of the coalition government.

The sources said the major sticking point between the PML-N and PPP is consensus on the name of the prime minister.

PPP senior leader Khursheed Shah said his party will not accept Sharif as premier.

"PPP has not yet agreed to form the government in coalition with PML-N," he said, adding the PPP is playing its cards cautiously.

Shah said Bilawal would be the Prime Minister candidate from the PPP if his party goes into coalition with other parties.

Sources said former prime minister Shehbaz, 72, has emerged as a favourite for the slot of the premiership.

"Shehbaz is the favourite of the military establishment which feels much comfortable working with him. The new government set-up will be like that of PDM (an alliance formed against Imran Khan) style," they said.

The biggest problem for the PTI-backed independents is that since they didn’t contest under a party symbol they have three days after the official notifications are out to decide which party to join or remain independent or form their own group in parliament.

They also have the option of sitting on opposition benches and bagging the important position of opposition leader or some of them could even join other parties as nothing is stopping them from doing that.

But generally, it is well known that the majority of the independents are loyal to their party leader Khan, currently in Adiala Jail.

Another setback for the independents is that they don’t qualify for a share in reserved seats which will be crucial in deciding the next government. In contrast, the PML-N and PPP both can hope to get a big share of the 70 reserved seats for women and non-Muslims in the House.

But in the end given Pakistan's chequered political history the decisive factor in deciding the next government would be the role of the establishment in these political negotiations and deals. PTI Corr/MZ/SH NSA AKJ AKJ

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