“Welcome to old Pakistan” – political families unite in triumph

Sehbaz Sharif was elected Pakistan’s new prime minister on Monday, marking the return to power and influence of the country’s two main political dynasties following the dramatic weekend ousting of former cricketer Imran Khan.

Sharif is the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party and the brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was removed from office by the Supreme Court in 2017 over undeclared wealth.

In a poetic speech after his election, Sharif accused Khan’s government of being “corrupt, incompetent and laid-back”, but also issued conciliatory notes. “If we want to move our country forward, it must be through dialogue, not stalemate,” he said.

Khan’s overthrow on Sunday was a triumph for Pakistan’s main political families, the Sharifs and the Bhuttos, who were once bitter rivals but united in an alliance against the former sports superstar after his election victory in 2018.

“Welcome to old Pakistan,” said Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party and son of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. “Democracy is the best revenge.”

Pakistan has been ruled by the military for about half of its existence since the nation’s founding in 1947, while Bhuttos and Sharifs have ruled several civilian governments since the 1970s.

Sharif delivered his victory speech to an almost half-empty hall. Khan’s 168 allies in the 342-seat National Assembly walked out in protest

The election of Sharif, former chief minister of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, ended a period of intense constitutional uncertainty in the nuclear-armed country of 220 million.

After losing the support of a coalition ally and some MPs from his own party, Khan had sought to avoid a vote of no confidence by dissolving parliament.

Pakistan’s Acting President Sadiq Sanjrani, left, swears in new Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif. Photogrpah: Press Information Service via AP

The Supreme Court ruled the decision unconstitutional and ordered parliament to debate the motion, paving the way for Khan to become the first Pakistani prime minister to be impeached by a vote of no confidence.

Highlighting Pakistan’s deep political divisions, Sharif delivered his victory speech to an almost half-empty room. Khan’s 168 allies in the 342-seat National Assembly walked out in protest, leaving the other 174 to vote for Sharif.

disruptive force

Analysts said Khan could now become a highly disruptive force against Sharif’s new government. Huma Baqai, an associate professor at the Karachi Institute of Business Administration, said “Khan’s tenure as prime minister is over, but his politics could get stronger.”

Khan sought to tap into reservoirs of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and insisted, without showing evidence, that his withdrawal had been orchestrated by the United States. Washington has strongly denied any attempt at regime change.

“The fight for freedom begins again today against a foreign conspiracy for regime change,” Khan said on Twitter on Sunday. His supporters demonstrated in large numbers against his ouster that evening.

A Pakistani resident reads a newspaper after Imran Khan lost the vote of no confidence in parliament.  Photograph: Shahzaib Akber/ EPA

A Pakistani resident reads a newspaper after Imran Khan lost the vote of no confidence in parliament. Photograph: Shahzaib Akber/ EPA

Khan “heads for turmoil right away,” said Ayaz Amir, a former Sharif party politician who is now a freelance commentator. “He will not allow this political system to take hold.”

Blaming the United States could work well for Khan, said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a former Punjab chief minister.

With global commodity prices soaring, Pakistanis have endured months of double-digit inflation. Food prices rose 13% year on year in March

“In some parts of Pakistan, anti-Americanism sells itself to the public, such as in areas along the Afghan border,” Rizvi said, adding that it was possible Khan could become a strong opposition leader.

“[His] the future depends on the extent to which the new government can address popular grievances…which will not be easy,” Rizvi said.

Pakistan’s next general election cycle is set to begin with the dissolution of parliament in August 2023, but election authorities will have to decide whether to hold by-elections soon after dozens of Khan-allied MPs resign.

The economy under pressure

Sharif will face intense stress on the Pakistani economy.

With global commodity prices soaring, Pakistanis have endured months of double-digit inflation. Food prices rose 13% year-on-year in March, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.

Imran Khan has been removed from his post as Prime Minister of Pakistan after losing a vote of no confidence in parliament following weeks of political unrest.  Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty

Imran Khan has been removed from his post as Prime Minister of Pakistan after losing a vote of no confidence in parliament following weeks of political unrest. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty

Khan had fallen out with the IMF over a $6 billion (5.52 billion euros) loan program, which involved imposing unpopular measures such as higher fuel tariffs.

“Our economy is facing extreme difficulties. This is a very serious situation but it needs to change and it will change for the better,” Sharif told parliament.

Nasir Ali Shah Bukhari, who heads brokerage firm KASB, said Sharif’s experience in the family metals business before entering politics would reassure the business community. “He is a businessman himself and has a deep understanding of the challenges faced by business people,” Bukhari said.

Sharif and his brother Nawaz have been dogged by corruption allegations, which they say are politically motivated. Nawaz was serving a seven-year prison sentence for corruption when he got special permission to travel to the UK for medical treatment in 2019. He has remained in the UK ever since.

Much may depend on the ability of the Sharifs and Bhuttos to maintain their alliance.

Asfandyar Mir, an expert at the US Institute for Peace, said the two families had found common cause as the powerful Pakistani military sought to reduce their influence. “The military has a deep contempt for these two political parties,” Mir said. “So I suspect they will work together…they realize Khan is their common rival and he can make a comeback.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022

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