Anjum Naved / AP
ISLAMABAD – Pakistani lawmakers are due to elect a new prime minister on Monday, ending a tumultuous week of political drama that saw the ouster of Imran Khan as prime minister and a constitutional crisis narrowly averted after the country’s Supreme Court took office.
The leading candidate is Shahbaz Sharif, opposition lawmaker and a brother of the disgraced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But his election will not guarantee a clear path forward – or solve Pakistan’s many economic problems, including high inflation and a soaring energy crisis.
Khan, a former cricket star whose conservative Islamist ideology and stubborn independence marked his three years and eight months in office, was ousted early Sunday after losing a no-confidence vote in parliament. Abandoned by his party allies and a key coalition partner, his opposition pushed Khan out with 174 votes – two more than the required simple majority in the National Assembly with 342 seats.
The opposition has chosen Shahbaz Sharif as its candidate for prime minister, claiming it has enough votes in his favor.
Hundreds of thousands gather for Khan
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Pakistan’s Justice Party, has nominated former Foreign Minister and experienced politician Shah Mahmood Qureshi as its candidate. But Qureshi on Sunday muddled the waters, saying many lawmakers in Khan’s party were considering withdrawing from parliament after Monday’s vote on the prime minister.
In a demonstration of strength and forerunner of the political insecurity ahead, Khan gathered hundreds of thousands of supporters late Sunday to protest his ouster, describing the next government as a “forced government”. In cities across Pakistan, Khan’s supporters marched, waving large party flags and promising support. The young people who make up the backbone of Khan’s followers dominated the crowds.
Some cried, others shouted slogans promising Khan’s return.
Fareed Khan / AP
Khan has also called for early elections, although the vote is not due to take place until August 2023. He has exploited anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and accused Washington of conspiring with his opponents to overthrow him. His conspiracy theory resonates with his young support base, who often see Washington’s war on terror after 9/11 as unfairly targeted at Pakistan.
Pakistan’s political drama began on April 3, when Khan avoided an initial no-confidence vote demanded by the opposition by dissolving parliament and calling early elections. The opposition, which accuses Khan of financial mismanagement, appealed to the Supreme Court. After four days of deliberation, the court ordered the parliament reinstated and the no-confidence vote began. After a marathon rally in parliament that started on Saturday and where also Parliament Speaker Asad Qaiser resigned. Khan was deposed early Sunday.
Khan claims that the opposition collaborated with Washington to overthrow him, allegedly because of his independent foreign policy in favor of China and Russia. He was also criticized for a visit he made on February 24 to Moscow, where he held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.
The US State Department has denied any involvement in Pakistan’s internal policy.
The way forward for the opposition parties is still unclear
The way forward is becoming stormy for the opposition coalition, which consists of parties that cross the political divide, from the left to the radical religious. The two largest parties are the Pakistan Muslim League, led by Sharif, and the Pakistan People’s Party, which is jointly led by the son and husband of the assassinated ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
In Pakistan, a few wealthy and powerful families have dominated politics for decades, with power most often alternating between Sharifs and Bhutto camps. Both political houses have been charged and occasionally convicted of widespread corruption – and both have denied the charges.
Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court in 2015 after being convicted of financial irregularities revealed in the so-called Panama Papers – a collection of leaked secret financial documents showing how some of the world’s richest people save their money and involve a global law firm. based in Panama. He was disqualified by the Pakistani Supreme Court from holding office.
Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s man who served as president of Pakistan after the 2008 elections, has spent more than seven years in prison, convicted of corruption charges.
Both families have denied corruption allegations against them as being politically motivated.
Khan came to power in 2018 and promised to break the family rule in Pakistan, but his opponents claimed he won the election with the help of the powerful military that has ruled Pakistan for half of the country’s 75-year history.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted in 1999 by a military coup, and Benazir Bhutto’s government was ousted several times after the military sided with her opposition. In Pakistani politics, where loyalty is often fluid, Bhutto’s fiercest opposition came from Sharif’s party.
Shahbaz Sharif has served three times as prime minister of Pakistan’s largest, most influential Punjab province, where 60% of the country’s 220 million people live. His son Hamza was elected by the Punjab provincial parliament last week as the new prime minister, rejecting Khan’s nominees. Khan’s party is challenging that election, and the younger Sharif has not yet been sworn in.