‘Welcome back to old Pakistan’: Fall of Imran Khan marks return of political dynasties

Shehbaz Sharif was elected Pakistan’s new prime minister on Monday, marking the return to power and influence of the country’s two main political dynasties following the dramatic ouster of former cricketer Imran Khan over the weekend.

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 for undeclared assets.

In a poetry-laced speech after his election, Sharif accused Khan’s government of being “corrupt, incompetent and relaxed” but also struck a conciliatory note. “If we want to move our country forward, this must be done through dialogue, not blockades,” he said.

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

“Welcome back to old Pakistan,” said Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party and 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’s founding in 1947, while the Bhuttos and Sharifs have led several civilian governments since the 1970s.

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

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

The Supreme Court ruled the move unconstitutional and ordered parliament to debate the motion, paving the way for Khan to become the first Pakistani prime minister to be ousted by a vote of no confidence.

Sharif underscored the deep political divisions in Pakistan and delivered his victory speech to an almost half-empty hall. Khan’s 168 allies in the 342-seat National Assembly had left in protest, leaving it to the remaining 174 to elect Sharif to office.

Analysts said Khan could now become a highly disruptive force against Sharif’s new government. Huma Baqai, an associate professor at Karachi’s Institute of Business Studies, said Khan’s “tenure as prime minister has ended, but his policies could get stronger”.

Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari during a press conference

Sharif, center, with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, left, during a news conference with other party leaders in Islamabad last week © Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Khan has sought to tap into Reservoir’s anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and has insisted without evidence that his ouster was orchestrated by the US. Washington has firmly rejected the attempt at regime change.

“The freedom struggle begins again today against a foreign regime-change conspiracy,” Khan tweeted on Sunday. That evening, his supporters demonstrated in large numbers against his fall.

Khan “goes straight into agitation,” said Ayaz Amir, a former lawmaker from Sharif’s party who now sits as an independent. “He will not allow this political system to calm down.”

Blaming the US could be good for Khan, said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a former prime minister of Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab.

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

“[His] The future depends on the new government’s ability to respond to popular grievances. . . It won’t be easy,” said Rizvi.

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

A man reads a newspaper with the headline'The End' after Imran Khan lost a no-confidence vote in Parliament
Imran Khan’s fall was a triumph for Pakistan’s leading political families © Shahzaib Akber/EPA/Shutterstock

Sharif will face intense strains on Pakistan’s economy.

Pakistanis have endured months of double-digit inflation as commodity prices soared around the world. Food prices rose 13 percent year-on-year in March, according to Pakistan’s Bureau of Statistics.

Khan had been at odds with the IMF over a $6 billion lending program that included unpopular measures like raising fuel tariffs.

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

Nasir Ali Shah Bukhari, who runs brokerage firm KASB, said Sharif’s experience in his family’s metals business before he went into politics would put the business community at ease. “He is a businessman himself and has a thorough understanding of the challenges faced by business people,” Bukhari said.

Sharif and his brother Nawaz have been dogged by corruption allegations that they believe are politically motivated. Nawaz was serving a seven-year sentence on corruption charges when he was granted special permission to visit the UK for medical treatment in 2019. Since then he has remained in the UK.

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 ground as Pakistan’s powerful military tried to lessen their influence. “The military has deep contempt for both of these political parties,” Mir said. “So I suspect they will work together. . . They realize that Khan is the common rival they have and he can make a comeback.” ‘Welcome back to old Pakistan’: Fall of Imran Khan marks return of political dynasties

Adam Bradshaw

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