‘Welcome back to old Pakistan’ – political families unite in triumph

Imran Khan’s ousting marks return of political dynasties

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

Sharif is the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party and brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was removed from office by the supreme court in 2017 because of undeclared wealth.

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

The toppling of Khan on Sunday was a triumph for Pakistan’s leading political families, the Sharifs and Bhuttos, who were once bitter rivals but united in an alliance against the former sports superstar after he won election in 2018.

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"Welcome back to old Pakistan," said Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the opposition Pakistan People's party and the son of assassinated 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 was founded in 1947 while the Bhuttos and Sharifs have led multiple civilian governments since the 1970s.

Sharif gave his victory speech to a nearly half-empty chamber. Khan's 168 allies in the 342-seat National Assembly had walked out in protest

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

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

The supreme court ruled the move unconstitutional and ordered the parliament to debate the motion, paving the way for Khan to become the first Pakistan prime minister to be removed by a no-confidence vote.

Underscoring Pakistan’s stark political divisions, Sharif gave his victory speech to a nearly half-empty chamber. Khan’s 168 allies in the 342-seat National Assembly had walked out in protest, leaving the remaining 174 to vote Sharif into office.

Disruptive force

Analysts said Khan could now become a highly disruptive force against Sharif's new government. Huma Baqai, an associate professor at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, said Khan's "term as prime minister has ended, but his politics may become stronger".

Khan has sought to tap into reservoirs of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and has insisted, without showing evidence, that his removal was orchestrated by the US. Washington has strongly denied seeking regime change.

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

Khan “is heading to agitation right away”, said Ayaz Amir, a former politician with Sharif’s party who is now an independent commentator. “He will not allow this political system to settle down.”

Blaming the US could play well for Khan, said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a former chief minister of Punjab.

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

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

“[His] future depends on how far the new government can respond to popular grievances... which is not going to be easy,” Rizvi said.

Pakistan’s next general election cycle is scheduled to begin with the dissolution of parliament in August 2023, but electoral authorities will have to decide whether or not to hold byelections soon after the resignation of scores of Khan-allied MPs.

Economy under stress

Sharif will have to contend with intense stress on Pakistan’s economy.

With global commodity prices soaring, Pakistanis have endured months of double-digit inflation. Food prices increased 13 per cent year on year in March, according to Pakistan’s Bureau of Statistics.

Khan had tussled with the IMF over a $6 billion (€5.52 billion) loan programme, which had involved imposing unpopular measures such as increasing fuel tariffs.

“Our economy faces extreme difficulties. It is a very grave situation but it must and it will change for the better,” Sharif told parliament.

Nasir Ali Shah Bukhari, who heads brokerage KASB, said Sharif's experience working in his family's metals business before he went into politics would reassure the business community. "He himself is a businessman and has a thorough understanding of the challenges faced by businessmen," 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 jail sentence for corruption when he got special permission to visit the UK for medical treatment in 2019. He has remained in the UK since.

Much may depend on whether the Sharifs and Bhuttos can maintain their alliance.

Asfandyar Mir, an expert at the US Institute of Peace, said the two families found common cause as Pakistan’s powerful military sought to reduce their influence. “The military have deep disdain for both of these political parties,” Mir said. “So I suspect they’ll work together... they realise Khan is the common rival they have, and that he can make a comeback.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022