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Pakistan Elects Shehbaz Sharif as New Prime Minister  


This handout photograph taken and released on March 3, 2024 by the Pakistan National Assembly, shows Pakistan's newly-elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (2R) addresses the Parliament in Islamabad. (Photo by Pakistan National Assembly / AFP)
This handout photograph taken and released on March 3, 2024 by the Pakistan National Assembly, shows Pakistan's newly-elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (2R) addresses the Parliament in Islamabad. (Photo by Pakistan National Assembly / AFP)

Pakistan’s newly elected National Assembly chose Shehbaz Sharif as the country’s new prime minister Sunday following a February general election that was marred by widespread rigging allegations.

The speaker of the 336-seat lower house of parliament announced at the end of the voting process that Sharif won 201 votes, surpassing the required 169 votes. His rival, Omar Ayub, the candidate backed by jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, secured 92 votes.

“Shehbaz Sharif is declared to have been elected as the prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” declared Speaker Ayaz Sadiq.

The declaration was met with loud protests from lawmakers, loyal to Khan, who persisted in alleging that the February 8 national elections were heavily rigged to support pro-military parties, including Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N.

Khan loyalists, waving his pictures, gathered near the speaker’s dais and relentlessly shouted slogans in support of their incarcerated leader while calling Sharif a "mandate thief."

Sharif served as prime minister until last August, when the National Assembly was dissolved and an interim government took over in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections, which returned no single party with a simple majority.

Candidates backed by Khan won the most seats but, the PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party, the PPP — the two family-controlled traditional ruling parties, together with several smaller groups, agreed to form a coalition government, enabling Sharif to return to power Sunday.

Analysts say the election’s controversial outcome has dampened hopes for the political stability the nuclear-armed nation needs to address critical economic problems, rising food and energy prices, and dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

On election day and in the hours that followed, authorities blocked mobile services and access to social media platforms. There was an unusual delay in announcing the election results. All these measures prompted accusations that the state was trying to make it difficult for PTI supporters to access polling booths and trying to manipulate the final results.

In the months preceding the vote, Khan, rated as the most popular national politician by public polls, was convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms on disputed charges of corruption, fraudulent marriage, and leaking state secrets while in office.

The 71-year-old politician denied wrongdoing and maintained that scores of other criminal and civil charges facing him were orchestrated by the powerful military to block his return to power.

The PTI was also subjected to a military-backed crackdown that led to the arrests of hundreds of its top leaders, and supporters, including women, and prevented Khan-backed candidates from running campaigns ahead of the polls.

Critics said public confidence in the 72-year-old new Pakistani leader was low and suggested political turmoil would continue in the country, citing rigging allegations and the remarkable electoral performance by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, party despite many challenges.

Sharif warned in his victory speech Sunday that Pakistan was facing an “alarming debt crisis” and vowed to work closely with his coalition partners to steer the country out of its economic troubles.

“It is a long and difficult journey full of hurdles, but countries that overcame challenges became successful nations,” he said.

During his previous stint in office, Sharif was able to negotiate a crucial $3 billion loan with the International Monetary Fund. The program expires in April and analysts say the new government will be required to secure a fresh multimillion-dollar IMF loan to keep the fragile economy on track.

State television abruptly stopped broadcasting losing candidate Ayub’s remarks after airing Sharif’s long speech uninterrupted.

Zulfiqar Bukhari, a Khan party spokesman, pledged to resist Sharif’s tenure, saying it was an outcome of electoral fraud to keep the PTI out of power. “An unelected government is only going to make Pakistan nosedive further economically, causing further deterioration as a nation,” Bukhari said.

Calls for probe of alleged rigging

Domestic independent election watchdogs and the United States, Britain, and the European Union have all expressed concerns about reported vote irregularities, urging a probe.

Last week, 31 members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking them to withhold recognition of a new government in Pakistan until a thorough, transparent, and credible investigation of election interference has been conducted.

“We want to make it very clear that the United States’ security assistance to the military in Pakistan and, frankly, to the military anywhere in the world, is contingent on following strong human rights standards,” U.S. Representative Greg Casar, a Texas Democrat who wrote the letter, told VOA.

Khan, a cricket celebrity-turned-prime minister, was removed from office in 2022 through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence that paved the way for then-opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif to replace him.

The deposed leader rejected the vote, alleging it was orchestrated by the military at the behest of Washington because he was pushing Pakistan to have a foreign policy free of U.S. influence. The Pakistani military and U.S. officials rejected Khan’s charges as baseless.

Last week, Khan wrote a letter to the IMF asking that future lending to his cash-strapped country be tied to an independent “audit of at least 30%” of the elections.

The letter stated that the polls for the national and four provincial assemblies, which cost $180 million, “were subjected to widespread intervention and fraud in the counting of votes and compilation of results.” The IMF has yet to comment on the letter.