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08 February 2024

Nawaz Sharif strikes confident note in Pakistan vote marred by Khan imprisonment

08 February 2024

Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif has expressed confidence his party will win Thursday’s national election, a vote that has been marred by violence, deep political tensions and the imprisonment of a popular contender.

A day before the election, at least 30 people were killed in bombings at political offices, and sporadic attacks on Thursday appeared aimed at disrupting the balloting, including one that killed five police officers in a country beset by surging militancy.

A total mobile phone shutdown across the country drew condemnation from rights groups.

The violence, political feuding and a seemingly intractable economic crisis have left many voters disillusioned and raised questions about whether a new government can bring more stability to the troubled Western ally.

But Mr Sharif brushed off suggestions his Pakistan Muslim League party might not win an outright majority in the parliament and would need to form a coalition to govern.

“For God’s sake, don’t mention a coalition government,” he said after casting his vote in the upscale Model Town neighbourhood of Lahore.

Though there were hours of polling still to go, he even suggested he was thinking about which posts would go to his family members – including his younger brother and former prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif.

“Once this election is over,” Nawaz Sharif said, “we will sit down and decide who is PM (prime minister) and who is CM (chief minister)” of Punjab province, a job that is regarded as a stepping stone to becoming premier.

The polls closed on Thursday evening, and ballot counting began.

Sikandar Sultan Raja, chief election commissioner, said officials would communicate the results to the oversight body by the early hours of Friday, with the outcome released to the public after that.

Deep political divisions make a coalition government seem more likely than Mr Sharif let on.

If no single party wins a simple majority, the first-placed gets a chance to form a coalition.

Still, that Mr Sharif appears to be the main contender represents a remarkable reversal of fortunes for the three-time prime minister, who returned to the country last October after four years of self-imposed exile abroad to avoid serving prison sentences.

Within weeks of his return, his convictions were overturned, leaving him free to seek a fourth term in office.

His archrival, former prime minister Imran Khan, meanwhile, is behind bars and banned from running after a series of convictions, including some just days before the election.

Mr Khan was ousted from power in a no-confidence vote in April 2022 and now has more than 150 legal cases hanging over him.

His supporters believe the charges were trumped up as part of an effort to hobble the popular cricket star-turned-Islamist politician, who in his waning days in power began to criticise the country’s military, which has long played an outsized role in politics.

Candidates from his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party have been forced to run as independents after the Supreme Court and Election Commission said they cannot use the party symbol – a cricket bat.

In Pakistan, parties use symbols to help illiterate voters find them on the ballots.

Mr Khan is only allowed to watch the state broadcaster PTV in prison and he gets one newspaper a day, the English-language daily Dawn.

He planned to watch TV and read the paper on election day, his party said, and his lawyers will brief him when they get the chance to see him.

Political analyst Azim Chaudhry referred to the way Mr Khan’s party was treated as “pre-poll rigging”.

“The whole election process seems to be a coronation,” he said.

The only other real contender is the Pakistan People’s Party.

It has a power base in the south and is led by a rising star in national politics – Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

The Sharifs and Mr Bhutto-Zardari are traditional rivals but have joined forces against Mr Khan in the past.

Analysts predict the race will come down to the parties of Nawaz Sharif and Mr Bhutto-Zardari, who is unlikely to secure the premiership on his own, but he could be part of a Sharif-led coalition.

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