ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistani parliament on Monday elected opposition lawmaker Shahbaz Sharif as the new prime minister following a week of political unrest that led to the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan over the weekend.
Sharif took office in the stately, white marble palace known as the presidency at a short ceremony.
But his rise will not guarantee a peaceful way forward or solve the country’s many economic problems, including high inflation and a soaring energy crisis.
Sharif, the brother of the disgraced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, won by 174 votes after more than 100 lawmakers from Khan Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Pakistan’s Justice Party, withdrew and walked out of the National Assembly in protest.
These 174 votes – two more than the required simple majority – are enough to pass laws in the assembly with 342 seats. If Khan’s supporters take to the streets, as he has promised, it could put more pressure on lawmakers and exacerbate the 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. He lost a no-confidence motion after being deserted by his party allies and an important coalition partner.
In a show of strength and a forerunner of the political uncertainty ahead, Khan rallied hundreds of thousands of supporters in protests Sunday night, describing the new leadership as a “forced government” working with the United States to oust him. His supporters marched in cities across Pakistan, waving large party flags and shouting slogans promising to bring him back to power. The crowds were dominated by young people who form the backbone of Khan’s followers.
The political drama began on April 3rd da Khan avoided an initial no-confidence motion 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 deliberations, the court said Khan’s move was illegal and that the no-confidence vote was underway, leading to his removal.
Khan has demanded early elections – the vote should not take place until August 2023. He has exploited anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and accused Washington of conspiring with his opponents to overthrow him. That conspiracy theory resonates in his youthful base, which often sees the post-9/11 US war on terrorism as an unfair target for Pakistan.
Khan claims that Washington is against him because of his independent foreign policy, which favors China and Russia. He was criticized for a visit he made on February 24 to Moscow, where he met with President Vladimir Putin as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.
The US State Department has denied any involvement in Pakistan’s internal policy.
China, Pakistan’s main ally and investor, said Monday it would support any government.
“As Pakistan’s close neighbor and iron-clad friend, we sincerely hope that all factions in Pakistan will remain united and work together for national stability and development,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a briefing. “I would like to emphasize that no matter how the political situation changes in Pakistan, China will steadfastly adhere to its friendly policy towards Pakistan.”
China is heavily invested in Pakistan in its multi-billion dollar global initiative to connect South and Central Asia with Beijing.
Pakistan’s longtime rival India also sent congratulations to Sharif, in which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his country “wants peace and stability.” The two countries have fought three wars and have come dangerously close to a fourth over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, which is divided between the two and claimed by both.
The opposition coalition 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 Benazir Bhutto’s son and husband, the former prime minister who was assassinated in 2007.
A few wealthy and powerful families have dominated Pakistan’s policies for decades, with power most often alternating between Sharif and Bhutto camps. Both political houses have been accused of and sometimes convicted of widespread corruption. They have denied the allegations as being politically motivated.
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 from holding office by the Supreme Court.
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.
Khan came to power in 2018 and promised to break the pattern of family rule in Pakistan, but his opponents said he was elected with the help of the powerful military, which has ruled the country for half of its 75-year history.
Nawaz Sharif was also 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 often came from Sharif’s party.
Shahbaz Sharif has served three times as prime minister of Pakistan’s largest, most influential Punjab province, home to 60% of the country’s 220 million people. His son, Hamza, was elected as the new prime minister of the Punjab provincial parliament last week, ruling out Khan’s candidate. Khan’s party is challenging that election, and the younger Sharif has not yet been sworn in.
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed of Islamabad contributed.
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