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Who are the main players after Pakistan's superb elections?

Who are the main players after Pakistan's superb elections?


The stunning electoral success of a party whose leader is in prison has triggered a political crisis in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 240 million people.

The stakes are high: Pakistanis face soaring inflation and costs of living, frequent power outages, a resurgence of terrorist attacks and strained relations with their neighbors.

Here are the critical figures competing for power.

Imran Khan: the imprisoned leader

Former prime minister and cricket star Imran Khan has been sentenced to 34 years in prison on charges including leaking state secrets and illegal marriage. He is barred from holding office and his supporters say the accusations, which he denies, are an attempt by the military to silence its chief critic.

Mr Khan, 71, was ousted as prime minister in 2022 but has made a comeback, rallying young people with populist rhetoric and criticism of dynastic families and the military establishment who have dominated Pakistan for decades. In last week's election, candidates aligned with Mr Khan won more seats in Parliament than any other group, but still failed to form a majority on their own.

Mr. Khan finds himself facing a legal maze as he seeks his way out of prison. Many experts say his party is unlikely to assemble a governing coalition, given the military's preference for its rivals and its strained relations with the other two major parties.

But his party's ability to organize support online has helped Mr. Khan persevere and wield powerful influence. His party is contesting the election results based on widely reported irregularities in vote counting, and an AI-generated version of Mr. Khan declared victory on Saturday.

Nawaz Sharif: the other former Prime Minister

Mr Khan's main rival was another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Both men were aligned with military generals when they took office, then fell out with them.

Analysts say military pressure has contributed to Mr. Sharif's difficulties retaining power: although he is Pakistan's longest-serving prime minister, with three terms, he has never completed one. (Pakistan has never seen a prime minister complete a full term.)

He resigned most recently in 2017, after he and his family were ensnared in corruption allegations that the Supreme Court ruled had disqualified him from office.

Mr. Sharif, 74, spent years in self-imposed exile in London before returning to Pakistan last year after reaching détente with the military, which felt he could compete with Mr. Khan's popular support , according to analysts. During his final term, he presided over a period of relative economic stability, but ultimately fell out with the military over foreign policy and its political role.

His party won the second highest number of seats in Parliament, according to preliminary counts: 77 candidates, compared to 92 aligned with Mr Khan.

But it is not certain that Mr. Sharif will become Prime Minister again. Before the election, he had hinted that he only wanted the role if his party won a simple majority. In recent years, he has also become increasingly concerned about his legacy, and running a weak government, after an election marred by allegations of rigging, could put him in jeopardy, analysts say.

Shehbaz Sharif: the brother of the former Prime Minister

Shehbaz Sharif, the 72-year-old brother of the former prime minister, is considered the military's preferred choice for the prime minister's post. He led a coalition government after Mr Khan's ouster and is seen as more respectful of the military than his brother.

He became the standard bearer of their party, the PMLN, and is known for his administrative skills and his oversight of major infrastructure projects. He too is the subject of accusations of corruption and embezzlement which have been the subject of several corruption investigations.

He has denied the allegations, but has also been criticized for his leadership in Punjab, the country's most populous province and seat of the Sharif dynasty. While chief minister, he was accused of not doing enough to combat extremist sectarian groups and ordering extrajudicial killings. He was acquitted of these charges in 2008.

The coalition government he presided over as prime minister was also widely unpopular and seen as incapable of resolving the economic crisis. And he lacks the popular appeal of his older brother, who enjoys a loyal support base in parts of Punjab.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari: a dynastic descendant

The third highest number of seats in Parliament went to the Pakistan People's Party, potentially making it a key player in any coalition.

The party is led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Benazir Bhutto, who in 1988 became the first woman democratically elected to lead a Muslim country. Ms. Bhutto was elected twice, expelled twice under pressure from the military for corruption and assassinated in 2007 while seeking a third term.

His son, 35, has sought to turn the party's fortunes around, in part by appealing to people outside the party's base in southern Pakistan. The party could be part of a coalition government led by Sharif and on Sunday, leaders of both parties met to discuss the possibility.

The military

Above all these politicians is the military, which has for decades acted as Pakistan's ultimate authority, ushering in civilian rulers, staging coups and guiding political decisions. Last week's elections were a stunning upset for the military, which had relied on its long and effective playbook to crush political dissent.

General Syed Asim Munir, the military chief, is widely seen as a personal rival of Mr Khan. But since the election, General Munir has come under pressure to strike a deal with the jailed leader that could involve his release on bail.

If they fail to reach an agreement, Mr Khan could ask his party's winning candidates to resign from parliament in protest. This could create more political chaos in the country, undermining the legitimacy of the new government. These leaders will also have to deal with the growing anger many Pakistanis feel toward the military as it suppresses protests and economic problems mount on its watch.




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