Pakistan’s opposition party of deposed Prime Minister Imran Khan swept by-elections in the country's most populous Punjab province Sunday, dealing a serious blow to the central coalition government and possibly paving the way for snap national polls.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won 15 of the 20 seats up for grabs, according to unofficial results reported by the state-run radio Pakistan and independent television stations.
The rival Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif secured four seats and one went to an independent candidate, his party leaders confirmed at a late-night news conference.
The outcome has given the PTI the requisite majority in the provincial legislature to reclaim power from the PML-N government of incumbent Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz, son of Sharif, who took an oath of office only eight weeks ago.
Defense Minister Khawaja Asif and other top PML-N leaders in separate statements congratulated the PTI for its “historic” victory.
“We accept the opinion of the public. They are constitutionally the real decision-makers and this is democracy,” said Marriyum Aurangzeb, federal information minister.
Khan thanked his party workers, voters and allies for helping the PTI win Sunday's elections and renewed his demand for snap elections in Pakistan.
Call for snap elections
“The only way forward from here is to hold fair & free elections under a credible ECP (Election Commission of Pakistan). Any other path will only lead to greater political uncertainty & further economic chaos,” Khan tweeted.
Punjab was ruled by a PTI-led coalition until mid-April when then-Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar resigned shortly after Khan’s four-year-old central government fell in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence earlier that month. That paved the way for Sharif to replace him as the country’s new prime minister and form a multiparty coalition.
Khan’s subsequent nominee for the post of chief minister was defeated after a faction among his party provincial lawmakers voted for Hamza Shebaz instead.
The PTI successfully petitioned the Election Commission of Pakistan to unseat the legislators in question for voting against the party in breach of anti-defection laws, leaving 20 Punjab seats vacant for which voting was eventually held Sunday.
Khan, the nearly 70-year-old former cricket legend, has accused Sharif and his other partners in the ruling coalition of conspiring with the powerful military and the United States to bring down his government. The U.S. government denied the allegation.
The deposed prime minister has since drawn tens of thousands to rallies across the country, condemning the Sharif administration in his televised speeches and media interviews as an “imported government” imposed on Pakistan by the alleged Washington-led conspiracy.
Khan has been pressing Sharif to hold early general elections. He has been urging his supporters during campaigning for the by-elections and media interviews to vote for his party to help him end dynastic family rule and the alleged U.S. influence on Pakistan's foreign policy.
The provincial election came as Sharif’s administration struggles to deal with the highest inflation facing the country in 13 years. Central bank foreign exchange reserves also have rapidly depleted to around $9.7 billion, barely enough to cover a few weeks of imports.
Last week, Islamabad and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to revive a bailout financial package for the cash-strapped South Asian nation to help it tackle a payment crisis in the wake of high global price of energy imports, mainly blamed on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The agreement, subject to the approval by the IMF board, was struck only after Sharif took politically unpopular decisions of raising energy prices and taxes to meet requirements mutually agreed with the global lending agency.
“The poll was a referendum on both the new gov’t’s performance and on Khan’s narrative about his ouster,” Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asian affairs at Washington's Wilson Center, tweeted while commenting on the results of the by-elections
"If the new beleaguered government was looking for a boost to its mandate, it clearly didn’t get it,” Kugelman said. "Now it’s stuck with a free-falling economy, it lacks a public mandate, and it confronts a galvanized opposition."