Home » Trailing rival party, former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif faces tough climb back to top | CBC News

Trailing rival party, former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif faces tough climb back to top | CBC News

The former prime minister of Pakistan expected his party would claim an easy victory in the country’s parliamentary elections, sending him to the top job for a fourth time. Instead, Nawaz Sharif faces a difficult path to power.

Independent candidates backed by his imprisoned rival, Imran Khan, were leading in the vote count Friday, a surprisingly strong showing given assertions by Khan’s supporters and a national rights body that the balloting was manipulated to favour Sharif.

That scrambled the intentions of Sharif — and the security establishment backing him — forcing him to announce plans Friday to try to form a coalition government.

A day earlier, Sharif had gruffly rejected the idea of a coalition, confidently telling reporters after casting his vote that he wanted a single party running Pakistan for a full five-year term.

Khan, a former cricket star turned Islamist politician with a significant grassroots following, was disqualified from running in Thursday’s election because of criminal convictions. He contends his sentences and a slew of legal cases pending against him were politically motivated.

Khan’s party’s candidates ran as independents after they were barred from using the party symbol — a cricket bat — to help illiterate voters find them on ballots.

WATCH | Before the vote, analysts said this would be Pakistan’s least credible election in years:

Analysts say this will be Pakistan’s least credible election in years

A popular political leader is in jail and his party is banned from using one of their most recognizable symbols after authorities cracked down in Pakistan. Many analysts say Thursday will bring the country’s least credible election in years. CBC’s Salimah Shivji breaks the story down from a campaign rally in Islamabad.

Despite those setbacks — and with most of the 266 National Assembly constituencies announced by the election oversight body — candidates backed by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, had won 99 seats. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party had 71 seats.

However, with a third major party in the mix, nobody could declare outright victory.

Sharif acknowledged the situation, telling supporters “we don’t have enough of a majority to form a government without the support of others and we invite allies to join the coalition so we can make joint efforts to pull Pakistan out of its problems.”

“We will have to sit together to settle all matters,” he said.

Yet Pakistan’s deeply divided political climate is unlikely to produce a strong coalition pushing for the betterment of a country grappling with high inflation, year-round energy outages and militant attacks.

The lack of a majority did not stop stop Sharif’s relatives and loyalists from appearing on a balcony at his party headquarters, waving to the crowds below. People threw rose petals on Sharif’s car as he arrived to give a speech to supporters.

Meanwhile, PTI chairman Gohar Khan told Pakistani news channel Geo that the party’s own count showed it securing a total of 150 seats, enough for it to form a government — although 169 seats are required for a majority in the 336-seat National Assembly, or the lower house of parliament.

Outcome defies most pre-election predictions

Observers had expected the Pakistan Muslim League to prevail and put Sharif on track for a fourth term as prime minister due to the disadvantages faced by PTI.

Along with Khan being in prison and facing more criminal convictions, election officials and police blocked his party from holding rallies and opening campaign offices, and its online events were blocked. The PTI said the moves were intended to prevent them from competing and gaining momentum with voters.

Sharif said he would approach the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, as a coalition partner. The PPP has 53 seats.

A group of men gather together. Some raise their arms or smile.
Supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and former prime minister Imran Khan celebrate their lead in the country’s national elections, in Peshawar, on Friday. (Abdul Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)

Sharif’s rivals, including Bhutto-Zardari, criticized him on the campaign trail, so the coalition he seeks is apparently aimed at keeping Khan in prison and the PTI out of politics.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the elections included undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

“We condemn electoral violence, restrictions on the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including attacks on media workers, and restrictions on access to the Internet and telecommunication services, and are concerned about allegations of interference in the electoral process,” Miller said.

The European Union said it regretted the lack of a level playing field due to the inability of some political actors to contest the elections. It called on authorities to ensure “a timely and full investigation” of all reported election irregularities.

Sporadic violence

Sporadic violence and a cellphone service shutdown overshadowed Thursday’s voting.

Violence persisted Friday, with two people killed and six injured in the northwest district of Shangla after clashes broke out between security forces and Khan supporters protesting against vote-rigging, police official Sadique Khan said. PTI supporters also protested against vote-rigging in the city of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Sharif and Khan’s circumstances on election day represented a reversal of fortunes for the two men. Sharif returned to Pakistan in 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.

The ease of his comeback marked him as the preferred candidate of the security establishment, which casts itself as the ultimate arbiter of who comes to power in Pakistan and what decisions they make.

It’s parliament that chooses the prime minister. But the success of Khan-backed candidates against the odds means Sharif will have to woo all politicians with assembly seats if he wants to lead the country again.