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Imran Khan’s rivals Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto reach deal to form Pakistan government

Namita Singh
Wednesday 14 February 2024 08:07 GMT
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Related: Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan sentenced to 10 years in prison

Imran Khan’s rivals Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on Wednesday agreed to form a coalition government in Pakistan, bringing an end to the stalemate days after national elections returned a hung parliament.

The latest development came hours after Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – all of them rivals of the country’s imprisoned former prime minister met in Islamabad.

While it remains unclear who would lead the alliance, Mr Sharif nominated his brother Shehbaz Sharif, said party spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb.

PML-N is the largest recognised party with 75 seats while PPP is second with 54.

"We have decided that we will form government together to take Pakistan out of crisis," the co-chairman of the PPP, former president Asif Ali Zardari, told a news conference, seated beside Shehbaz Sharif and leaders of other political parties. The decision thereby ensures that candidates backed by cricketer-turned-politician Khan remain out of power despite getting the most – 93 out of 265 – National Assembly seats.

The surprisingly strong showing for Mr Khan-backed candidates was a shock for former prime minister Sharif who was marked out as the powerful security establishment’s preferred candidate following his smooth return to the country last October.

Pakistan‘s military has always cast itself as the ultimate arbiter in who becomes prime minister.

Pakistan's former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party Shehbaz Sharif (L) speaks during a press conference in Lahore, Pakistan, 13 Febuary 2024 (EPA)

Tuesday’s move by the rivals of Mr Khan came hours after his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party refused to hold any talks with them.

The PPP does not want a perpetual economic crisis or a fresh election leading to a political crisis in Pakistan, Mr Bhutto Zardari said.

Shehbaz Sharif welcomed the support from the PPP and other parties and said all the parties had come together because they needed to tackle numerous challenges, particularly the economy.

The country of 241 million people is grappling with an economic crisis amid slow growth and record inflation, along with rising militant violence.

It narrowly averted a sovereign default last summer with a $3bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund, but the lender’s support ends in March, following which a new, extended programme will be needed.

Bilawal-Bhutto Zardari, Chairman of Pakistan People’s Party speaks during a press conference regarding parliamentary elections, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, 13 February 2024 (AP)

Negotiating a new programme, and at speed, will be critical for the new government.

Analysts had hoped the election would bring a solution to the crises faced by Pakistan, but the split verdict, with a large number of independents at loggerheads with the influential military, could only mean more instability.

Explaining the challenges before the coalition, Asees Bajaj, Associate in Strategic Intelligence at international think-tank S-RM says that PML-N lacks credibility in tackling economic crisis and is likely to face political opposition from elected members of PTI.

File: Lawyers in support of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan, denounce his arrest during a protest outside the High court in Lahore on 7 August 2023 (AFP/Getty)

Mr Khan is in jail on charges of corruption and revealing state secrets, and his party was barred from contesting the election, forcing members to run as independents. His PTI has alleged that the vote was rigged and vowed to legally challenge some results. The caretaker government and election commission have rejected those accusations.

“The coalition government led by PML-N in 2022 after Khan’s ouster was deeply unpopular and blamed for failing to address an economic crisis that has battered the country and sent inflation to record highs,” she told The Independent.

Any incoming government is likely to face opposition in parliament from PTI and its supporters who would be “willing and able to stage disruptive anti-government protests” she said.

“With the vote counting process marred by delays, a mobile network blackout and other alleged irregularities, the PTI has accused the government and Election Commission of widespread vote-rigging that prevented the party from winning at least 70 further seats – which would have definitely delivered the PTI a majority,” said Ms Bajaj.

“The party has consequently launched legal challenges, which could embroil the PML-N and Election Commission in lengthy legal battles, and called for its supporters to protest outside election commission offices in constituencies where voter rigging has been alleged.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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