Can the 2023 election in Pakistan bring a shift in relations with New Delhi and Moscow?
“The moment Nawaz Sharif boards a plane to Pakistan, the election campaign can be considered underway in the country,” said Talal Chaudhry, an ex-member of the Pakistani parliament from the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) who has close ties to the party’s leadership.
For a long time, the president of the PML-N has been living in ‘self-exile’ in London. Difficult relations with Pakistani military elites, formed over the course of his 40-year political career, and a long trail of corruption cases have prevented the former three-time prime minister from feeling safe in his native country.
As the term of the National Assembly of Pakistan – the lower house of Pakistan’s Parliament – is about to expire, the upcoming elections are becoming the main topic of political discussion in the country. The potential return to power of Nawaz Sharif is associated with major changes in Pakistan’s policies, which would come into effect following the results of the vote.
The coalition government led by Shehbaz Sharif – the younger brother of the PML-N leader – may reaffirm its mandate by the end of the year and hand over the leadership of the country to Nawaz Sharif. However, the opposition, headed by Pakistan’s former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, Imran Khan, may prevent Sharif from returning to power. According to the available data, Khan’s candidacy is supported by the majority of voters.
Just a few days ago, however, the country’s most popular politician was arrested on charges of embezzlement and for selling valuables gifted by foreign leaders. Formally, Imran Khan does not have the right to participate in the elections, but this does not mean that his supporters are ready to end the conflict with the ruling coalition. In any case, for the latter, the elections promise to be tough.
The tense political struggle is evident from the fact that even the date of the elections caused a heated argument between the government and the opposition. Confident in its victory, for the past year and a half, the opposition has insisted on holding early elections. The government, however, hoped to prove its competence and lure voters over to its side, and so the Election Commission of Pakistan did not find it appropriate to hold early elections.
The opposition could not persuade the government to hold early elections and found itself in a tactically weak position. Imran Khan’s supporters were forced to wait for the announcement of the election date and to wonder who will be their main competitor – the current prime minister or ‘veteran of Pakistani politics’ Nawaz Sharif. However, this small victory has been the only unequivocal triumph of the Sharif government. The country’s other issues turned out to be a lot more difficult to handle.
Pakistan’s problems aren’t any one government’s fault
Pakistan’s key problems, like those of any other country, have to do with economics. The country’s main problems include the risk of default caused by a lack of funds for servicing external debt (which increased from $34 billion in 2005 to $130 billion in 2021), a budget deficit (which reached 7.9% in 2022), high inflation rates (19.9% in 2022), a lack of energy resources, and general problems related to energy systems – for example, indicators of electric power consumption do not exceed 500 kWh per capita per year on average (for context, this number reaches over 10,000 kWh in top-rated developed countries).
These are all standard issues for developing countries. But against the background of rising inequality, Pakistan’s growing population exacerbates the problem and could transform socio-economic threats into political threats.
Pakistan’s government attempted to take measures that would help with each issue – it obtained the next tranche of financial assistance from the IMF, established fixed prices on essential goods for households and enterprises, and sought to diversify energy ties – for example, through an agreement on the import of crude oil from Russia. However, all these steps still do not guarantee positive results in the long run.
The government and the opposition threw plenty of accusations at each other. Imran Khan pointed out the deteriorating economic situation, while Shehbaz Sharif said that his cabinet inherited all its problems from the PTI government. In reality, neither side is being entirely honest. For Pakistan, these problems are chronic and could neither emerge nor be resolved during only one government term.
In the defense and security field, which is closely related to foreign policy, the country’s ‘traditional’ issues haven’t been resolved either. In 2022-23, the activity of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) movement became the main challenge for the country’s military and civilian leadership.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on the border with Afghanistan has suffered from terrorist activity for decades. However, after the entry of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into the province as a result of the administrative reform of 2018, the conflict between the security forces and the Islamists escalated.
A short truce between Islamabad and TTP, concluded shortly after the withdrawal of US troops and their allies from Afghanistan, was followed by the militants’ increased activity. Fighting terrorism in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province will remain one of the key issues for the future government. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that any political power will be able to solve this problem for good.
In the past years, however, it was the government of Shehbaz Sharif that had to deal with the numerous terrorist attacks. “External beneficiaries” were blamed for causing instability in the country, with Pakistan’s archrival India being mentioned alongside Afghanistan.
No India-Pakistan reconciliation in sight
The Indo-Pakistani conflict is the result of both territorial claims and a significant list of full-fledged wars and armed clashes between the two countries. The first conflict between India and Pakistan broke out over Kashmir, which has a mostly Muslim population. The region became the site of numerous military clashes, but the problem has not been limited to matters of territorial integrity.
The ideological justification for the existence of a separate Muslim state on the Indian subcontinent does not allow Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders to just avoid the Kashmir issue and the problems of its coreligionists in India. While the situation seemed hopeless throughout the existence of the independent nations, after 2019, the subject of ‘reconciliation with India’ became taboo for any Pakistani politician.
On August 5, 2019, the Indian Parliament abolished Article 370 of the Constitution of India, which had given the state of Jammu and Kashmir autonomous status with its own constitution, flag, and a set of privileges for the local population at the regional and federal levels. This was a fundamental decision for the leadership of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The former state became the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the Union Territory of Ladakh, both directly controlled by the federal authorities. This demonstrated that India’s current political elites have their own stance on national security issues and will not continue the course of the Indian National Congress aimed at ‘softly integrating’ Kashmir into the country’s political space. As of now, even if the Indian ruling party were to lose the 2024 elections (which is highly unlikely), the region would not be given back its autonomous status, since Indian elites do not believe that the former state’s special status helped solve the problems of separatism, extremism, and terrorism. Modi’s government merely made the decision that no one could muster the courage to make before him.
Imran Khan, who was Pakistan’s prime minister at the time when Article 370 was abolished, had no choice but to freeze relations with India. Dialogue with New Delhi turned out to be impossible since any politician who started it could be accused of betraying the Kashmiri people and Pakistan’s cause.
One could wonder how this relates to Shehbaz Sharif’s January 2023 statement concerning the need to “sit down at the table and have serious and sincere talks to resolve our burning points like Kashmir.” But as always, the devil is in the details. The very next day, the prime minister’s administration explained that negotiations are possible only after the autonomous status of the former Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is restored. In his latest statement concerning the need to normalize relations between India and Pakistan, Pakistan’s prime minister also noted that the countries “cannot become normal neighbors unless abnormalities are removed, unless our serious issues are understood and addressed.”
The dialogue between the leaders of India and Pakistan resembles a conversation between someone who is mute and someone who is deaf. While Islamabad repeats the mantra about the special status of Kashmir, New Delhi responds with eloquent silence. The occasional calls of the Indian parliamentarians to normalize trade and cultural ties between the two countries hardly reflect the views of the prime minister’s inner circle responsible for developing strategies with neighboring countries.
In these circumstances, the re-election of Pakistan’s current political elites or the return of Imran Khan may contribute to improving relations in some minor aspects – such as the official resumption of trade ties, investment activity, and the launch of new cultural diplomacy initiatives. But for the two countries to fully reset relations and discuss military and political issues currently seems impossible. The positions of both parties on key issues are set in stone, each side is convinced that it alone is in the right and will not allow any doubts to overshadow it.
Relations with Russia unlikely to be affected
In the past several years, experts and journalists have attempted to analyze whether Russia’s position has changed in regard to the Indo-Pakistani confrontation. These concerns were raised because of the intensive development of Russian-Pakistani relations and the continued strengthening of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership. At this point, we may already say that there are no grounds to expect any changes. However, let’s explore the matter in more detail.
In less than ten years, bilateral trade between Russia and Pakistan has grown two and a half times due to increased Russian exports of agricultural products and the growing presence of Pakistani goods (pharmaceuticals) on the Russian market. An agreement was reached on the construction of the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline from Karachi to Lahore, intended to strengthen Pakistan’s energy security and diversify Russia’s energy ties. The parties also developed common approaches on the ‘Afghan track’ and intensified cooperation across regional and global platforms.
After Imran Khan was removed from power in April 2022, many people wondered whether the ‘pro-Western’ Sharif government would negate all the positive aspects of the Russian-Pakistani relations. However, this did not happen for several reasons.
Firstly, the new coalition government didn’t turn out to be more ‘pro-Western’ than its predecessors. It was distinguished only by an attempt to update the balance of strategic relations with the US and China – a traditional issue for Pakistani foreign policy. Pakistan did not intend to lower the status of its ‘all-weather partnership’ with China, but strived to update US-Pakistani relations on issues like military-political, military, and military-technical cooperation.
Secondly, Islamabad has not stopped interacting with Moscow in any of the habitual formats. Moreover, Pakistan’s current government concluded the above-mentioned agreement on the supply of Russian crude oil.
Finally, Russia and Pakistan simply have had nothing to lose so far. The rapid development of bilateral relations between the two countries is due to the low starting point – the parties have not yet implemented any joint flagship project that could be ‘ruined’.
In this respect, it’s important to note that military-technical cooperation isn’t an option. Firstly, Moscow takes New Delhi’s concerns seriously; and secondly, Russian weapons and military equipment manufacturers don’t see any prospects for Pakistan to either buy the expensive equipment or cooperate on joint production.
As a result, no major changes to the balance of power in the region are expected. Pakistan’s new government may make further efforts to normalize the economic situation and attempt to address regional security issues. The success of these initiatives will be important for both Russia and India.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.