ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan’s parliament on Monday elected opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif as the country’s interim prime minister, ushering in a new government after Imran Khan’s ouster and ending a week of political turmoil that has brought fragile democracy to the edge pushed.
The vote came two days after Mr Khan, the former cricketer turned politician, was removed from office in a vote of no confidence in parliament after losing support from top military leaders late last year.
The political crisis escalated last week after Mr Khan demonized the opposition as traitors and defied the constitution to dissolve parliament in an attempt to block the vote. 75 year history.
Mr Sharif is the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, who was Prime Minister three times, and like other family members, he is dogged by corruption and felony charges that have been the focus of several corruption investigations. Now the rise of Shehbaz Sharif as Prime Minister is seen in some quarters as an implicit rebuke of Mr Khan’s avowed mission to dismantle Pakistan’s political dynasties and eradicate corruption in politics.
Members of Mr Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or PTI, boycotted the vote in the National Assembly on Monday to elect the new prime minister – an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the new government as the country faces a fraught election season ahead, analysts say.
The motion to elect Mr Sharif as Prime Minister was passed with 174 votes, two more than the required simple majority.
Mr Sharif, 70, takes power at a time of deep political division and economic turmoil in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 220 million people. His government faces a stalled economy grappling with double-digit inflation and massive government debt. And he has pledged to implement electoral reforms to ensure that the elections expected by the end of this year are free and fair.
Many also expect that Mr Sharif will try to improve Pakistan’s severed ties with the United States. Pakistan’s military leaders, who have historically directed the country’s foreign and security policy, have recently expressed an interest in improving relations with the United States as well.
But Mr Sharif has to walk a fine line in restoring the country’s relationship with the United States without capitalizing on Mr Khan’s story that US officials colluded with opposition parties to remove him from power. That accusation has already become a central part of Mr Khan’s campaign in the run-up to the next election.
As the new Prime Minister, Mr. Sharif chaired a coalition of several political parties united around the goal of killing Mr. Khan to be voted out of office. But those parties have historically been at loggerheads, and it’s unclear whether they will remain united as the election approaches.
“In Pakistan, there are always a lot of serious challenges and political uncertainty, but it comes at a particularly challenging time compared to previous governments,” said Ijaz Khan, former chair of the Department of International Relations at the University of Peshawar.
Sharif was appointed flag bearer of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz by his older brother in July 2017 and was officially elected party leader in March.
Nawaz Sharif, whose second term was cut short by a military coup in 1998, has consistently argued with the country’s dominant military establishment. But Shehbaz Sharif is believed to have better relations with the generals.
Mr Khan, the former prime minister, also argued with the military over foreign policy and top military appointments. Mr Sharif is expected to do better thanks to his cautious and calibrated approach, analysts say.
Though he is seen as popular, Mr Sharif’s political career is also riddled with controversy. He has been criticized for doing too little to curb extremist sectarian groups in the Punjab province during his three terms as prime minister there, and has been accused of ordering extrajudicial killings.
In 2003, a court issued a warrant for Mr Sharif’s arrest after he was accused of ordering the extrajudicial executions of several people in 1998, of which he was acquitted in 2008. He was arrested by anti-corruption authorities in 2018 after being charged with misconduct in a low-cost housing program introduced during his tenure as the prime minister of Punjab. And he was arrested again in 2020 on corruption charges.
Sharif has denied all charges of corruption, characterizing them as politically motivated.
As the prime minister of Punjab, he headed the country’s most populous province and its political power base, where the Sharif dynasty has dominated politics since the 1980s.
In that role, Mr. Sharif developed a reputation for his administrative skills and for spearheading a high profile campaign of infrastructure improvement and social development programs.
He also became known for his energetic style of administration, which included surprising inspection raids on hospitals and schools, even in the smaller towns of Punjab, and his aides describe him as a workaholic with a penchant for 7am staff meetings.
His track record of quickly delivering major infrastructure projects was a defining feature of his political career and helped him gain significant public support.