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Pakistan party nominates Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister, ending deadlock

Pakistan's former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party Shehbaz Sharif speaks during a press conference in Lahore on Feb. 13, 2024.
ARIF ALI
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AFP via Getty Images
Pakistan's former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party Shehbaz Sharif speaks during a press conference in Lahore on Feb. 13, 2024.

ISLAMABAD — After compromised elections last week, a former prime minister of Pakistan is likely to resume the premiership, his party announced. Shehbaz Sharif will lead a coalition of junior parties that will form a majority in Pakistan's parliament.

The move to reappoint Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister is a likely blow to millions of Pakistanis who voted in last Thursday's elections for independents backed by the country's most popular leader, Imran Khan. His party alleges that widespread irregularities occurred to prevent them from clearing a majority in parliament. Sharif's party, known as the PLM-N, received the largest number of votes in the Feb. 8 elections, with 79 seats of a contested 264.

Shehbaz was once respected as a no-drama technocrat who served as the chief minister of Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab. He became prime minister in April 2022 after his predecessor, Imran Khan, was ousted from the position in a no-confidence vote after he fell out with Pakistan's powerful military.

He held the job for 14 months before a caretaker government was appointed in the lead-up to elections. He was widely considered to be deeply unpopular prime minister — seen as weak, controlled by his brother behind the scenes, and unable to contain his ministers as Pakistan's economy unraveled. Importantly though, he was seen as pliant to the demands of the army.

Shehbaz will lead a coalition government of junior parties that excludes independents backed by his rival Imran Khan – who does not want to ally with his rivals. Shehbaz Sharif's coalition will nevertheless have a comfortable majority.

"Basically this government, which has questionable legitimacy, will be largely dependent on the military for survival," says Zahid Hussain, an author and columnist in the liberal daily Dawn.

Sharif's party says it will form a coalition with the Pakistan Peoples Party, the party once led by the slain iconic leader Benazir Bhutto. Representatives of the two parties announced the news late Tuesday evening after Sharif's brother met with the president of the PPP, Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widow.

But the two parties still have to agree on allotting ministries and top jobs — a process that could days, or weeks.

Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Asim Munir, appeared to approve those coalition building efforts, saying in a speech earlier on Sunday that the country needed "stable hands and a healing touch to move on from the politics of anarchy and polarization."

"Pakistan's diverse polity and pluralism will be well-represented by a unified government of all democratic forces imbibed with national purpose," he said.

It was independents backed by Sharif's rival Imran Khan, another former prime minister, who won the largest bloc, with 92 seats so far. His party alleges they were robbed of dozens more seats of independents they were backing because of election-day rigging.

Independent analysts concur, to some degree. "If this had been a free and fair election from the outset, then their victory would have been pretty overwhelming," saysOmar Waraich, an analyst and former Pakistan correspondent for Time. "That's the interesting thing," he says. "This was not a free and fair election. And yet they won. That doesn't usually happen. Usually when we speak of something not being not being a free and fair election, people have lost."

A campaign poster for Imran Khan, Pakistan's former prime minister, on an overpass ahead of Pakistan's national election in Lahore, Pakistan, on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024.
/ Betsy Joles/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Betsy Joles/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A campaign poster for Imran Khan, Pakistan's former prime minister, on an overpass ahead of Pakistan's national election in Lahore, Pakistan, on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024.

Khan-supporting independents claim voting irregularities

That outcome was a stunning turn for a party that has faced a months-long crackdown that began after Khan fell out with the military and was ousted from power nearly two years ago. That crackdown intensified after Khan was arrested last May, an act that prompted his supporters to overrun military installations, a once unthinkable act in a country where generals have ruled for nearly half of Pakistan's more than 76 years of independence.

Khan is currently in prison serving multiple jail terms for four separate convictions: three of them were handed down a week before the elections. Pakistan's supreme court prevented his party from running in elections, forcing Khan's candidates to run as independents. Security forces hounded supporters trying to hold rallies. So Khan supporters turned to social media, holding events on TikTok.

Khan's party, known as PTI, developed an AI-generated persona of Khan that repeatedly urged supporters to go to the polls and help residents familiarize themselves with the independents running in his name. "People are waiting for a glimpse of Imran Khan," says senior aide Zulfi Bukhari, explaining why Khan's team decided to generate an AI persona of their leader while he was behind bars.. "We can pass messages through to lawyers, they can come out, give press conferences. But Imran has a distinctive voice. He has a distinctive character, he has a distinctive look."

On the day of elections, authorities temporarily shut down disrupted mobile networks, citing security concerns. Khan supporters reported electoral officials in some contested seats had thrown out party representatives who were meant to oversee vote counting.

Despite Pakistani elections being a massive undertaking of some 60 millionvoters casting ballots in more than 90,000 polling stations, the results are typically reported within hours of the vote concluding. This time, it took the election commission more than two days to issue most results.

By that time, several Khan-backed independents reported that the initial number of votes they had received had somehow been scaled back, allowing their rivals to win. By Monday, the PTI's media team reported more than 100 candidates they backed were appealing their results.

Polling staff empty a ballot box after polls closed at a polling station during the general election, in Lahore, Pakistan, February 8, 2024.
NAVESH CHITRAKAR / REUTERS
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REUTERS
Polling staff empty a ballot box after polls closed at a polling station during the general election, in Lahore, Pakistan, February 8, 2024.

Sharif's party pushes back against vote-rigging charges

One seat under contention in the second largest city, Lahore, was won by another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. He is the brother of Shehbaz, the man who will likely become prime minister.

But a document his party shared on X, formerly known as Twitter, to show that he had won, suggested discrepancies. The official paper is meant to show a tally of how many votes each candidate received in their constituency.

The form shared by Sharif's team, however, listed more votes received than voters, while 14 independents had not received any votes at all, meaning they did not even vote for themselves. "This is a completely concocted result. Somebody screwed up even in the basics of how to cheat," says Musharraf Zaidi, a columnist and founder of an Islamabad-based think tank, Tabadlab. "They didn't even vote for themselves. Their sons and daughters and mothers and wives didn't vote for them, literally zero votes," he says. "It's so obvious, and so clumsy, and so incompetent."

After the discrepancies were widely noted on social media, the post was deleted.

As claims of irregularities emerged, the State Department called for investigations into "claims of interference of fraud." That was echoed by the United Kingdom and the European Union.

On Monday the Free and Fair Election Network, a Pakistani network that monitors elections, said their observers were not allowed"to observe the tabulation process" in 135 of 260 constituencies. It also reported that in 65 constituencies, the officer in charge did not allow party agents to observe the counting process. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Pakistani foreign ministry pushed back against allegations of inconsistencies, describing the vote as "free and enthusiastic."

The Election Commission of Pakistan rejected allegations of vote rigging. "Despite difficulties and issues, the electoral process was peacefully organized," it said. Acknowledging some irregularities, it said "Immediate decisions are being taken on complaints filed." And on Tuesday,local media reported Pakistan's caretaker Prime Minister Anwar Kakar saying delays in producing election results "does not mean rigging."

"We could afford delay, but terrorist attacks, we could not," Kakar said, referring to bombing attacks that killed more than 25 people the day before elections.

Sharif's party, the PLMN, angrily respondedto claims of vote rigging on X. "PTI's definition of "free and fair elections" is where they win. If PML-N wins, then it's rigging!"

A portrait of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan is seen amid flags of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the religious and political party Jamat-e-Islami (JI) as supporters attend a joint protest demanding free and fair results of the elections, outside the provincial election commission of Pakistan (ECP)in Karachi, Pakistan February 10, 2024.
Akhtar Soomro / REUTERS
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REUTERS
A portrait of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan is seen amid flags of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the religious and political party Jamat-e-Islami (JI) as supporters attend a joint protest demanding free and fair results of the elections, outside the provincial election commission of Pakistan (ECP)in Karachi, Pakistan February 10, 2024.

Young voters pose challenge to efforts to control elections

Since the elections, Khan supporters have gathered to protest in different parts of the country, sometimes clashing with police. Mostly though, the demonstrations have been small-scale and muted.

Some 20 independent candidates backed by Khan are appealing to local courts and an election tribunal to demand recounts in their districts, pointing to the discrepancies between tallies from individual polling stations and the overall count issued by the election commission. Some 100 more candidates intend to also challenge their results, according to Khan's media team.

The party is also anticipating that whatever coalition government is formed by Sharif and the PPP will not last long. "We just need to sit back and watch the show," says Bukhari, the senior Khan aide. "In 18 months everything will be in turmoil again, and Imran Khan will be, you know, once again on top."

Analysts say the military's desire to control electoral outcomes in Pakistan faces another, looming challenge: the country's demographics.

Pakistan is a rapidly growing country of some 240 million people, who have a median age of 22 years old, and it appears that young Pakistanis skew toward Khan and his party. "The demographics of this country mean that every five years, there's 10, 15 million new voters that are very young and very keen to express themselves," says Zaidi, the think tank director. And overwhelmingly, they are voting for Khan.

"They've captured an entire generation," concurs Waraich. "The trend grows stronger in Imran Khan's favor as the demographics shift. Greater urbanization, more young people - that's the trend."

Diaa Hadid reported from Mumbai, India. Abdul Sattar reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Abdul Sattar