Shehbaz Sharif returns as Pakistan’s new premier as Imran Khan allies in parliament allege rigging

In this photo released by the National Assembly office, Pakistan's newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, foreground right, is congratulated by his elder brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif following his appointment, at a parliament session, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, March 3, 2024. Lawmakers in Pakistan's National Assembly elected Sunday Shehbaz Sharif as the country's new prime minister for the second time as allies of imprisoned former premier Imran Khan in parliament shouted in protest, alleging rigging in last month's election. (National Assembly Office via AP)

In this photo released by the National Assembly office, Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, foreground right, is congratulated by his elder brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif following his appointment, at a parliament session, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, March 3, 2024. Lawmakers in Pakistan’s National Assembly elected Sunday Shehbaz Sharif as the country’s new prime minister for the second time as allies of imprisoned former premier Imran Khan in parliament shouted in protest, alleging rigging in last month’s election. (National Assembly Office via AP)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Lawmakers in Pakistan’s National Assembly have elected Shehbaz Sharif for a comeback term as the country’s prime minister, as allies of imprisoned former premier Imran Khan in parliament shouted in protest, alleging rigging in last month’s election.

Sharif held the same office from April 2022 to August 2023, and is the younger brother of three-time premier Nawaz Sharif.

Khan is currently serving prison terms in multiple cases and has been barred from seeking or holding office. Sharif replaced him as prime minister after his ouster in a no-confidence vote in parliament in April 2022.

Speaker Ayaz Sadiq said Sharif secured 201 votes, defeating Omar Ayub of the Sunni Ittehad Council who got 92 votes. The winner only needs 169 votes to get a majority.

Ayub was backed by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, whose candidates could not get enough seats to form a government on their own. The PTI refused to hold talks with its rivals to form a coalition.

Following days of negotiations, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party and his supporters formed an alliance after the Feb. 8 election, which was overshadowed by militant violence, a nationwide mobile phone shutdown, Khan’s exclusion from the vote, and an unusual delay in announcing the result.

Authorities said cutting communications was necessary to avoid attacks on candidates and security forces.

However, the delay drew criticism from Khan’s party, which insists the vote was rigged to stop it from getting a majority. The party claims it has evidence that its victory “was stolen during the vote count,” a charge the Election Commission denies.

Sharif, in his acceptance speech in parliament Sunday, said: “We were subjected to political victimization in the past but never took any revenge.” Without naming Khan, he said the previous ruler jailed many political rivals, including himself and his ally Asif Ali Zardari.

He also accused Khan’s supporters of attacking military installations while protesting his ouster in 2022, adding that now parliament and the courts would decide whether those involved in attacking the military installations deserved a pardon.

Holding portraits of Khan, some lawmakers stood in front of Sharif when he began his speech, shouting “vote thief” and “shame.” Sharif denounced their actions, saying they were causing chaos in parliament. He also said they should present their evidence of vote rigging to the relevant authorities.

Sharif then addressed the opposition saying, “I am offering you reconciliation. Let us sit together to work for the betterment of Pakistan.” But he was greeted with more protests and shouts.

The premier also spoke of repairing ties with the United States. Relations between the two countries have been strained after Khan accused the U.S., Sharif and the Pakistani military of conspiring to keep him out of office, following his ouster.

Sharif also said his biggest challenge was the economic situation as Pakistan has been relying on foreign loans to run the economy. His government faces multiple issues, including how to respond to a surge in militant attacks, improve relations with the neighboring, Taliban-run Afghanistan, repair crumbling infrastructure, and resolve year-round power outages. It must also maintain political stability as Khan’s party has vowed to continue protests against the alleged vote-rigging.

After losing to Sharif, Ayub addressed the parliament, commending “my leader” Khan for his “bravery” while facing the cases against him. He denounced the arrest of “thousands of Khan’s supporters” last year after they took to the streets following his ouster.

Ayub repeated the allegations of vote rigging and demanded a probe into last month’s poll. He said PTI votes were tampered with and “votes were stolen” to stop Khan’s party from forming a government.

He said Sharif can rule the country but “he cannot win hearts and minds because he came to power through a rigged vote.”

Last week, Khan wrote a letter to the International Monetary Fund, urging it to link any talks with Islamabad to an audit of February’s election. Khan’s move, which Sharif criticized in his speech, comes days before the IMF releases a key installment of a bailout loan to Pakistan.

Pakistan has been relying on bailouts to prop up its foreign exchange reserves and avoid default, with the IMF and wealthy allies like China and Saudi Arabia financing the country to the tune of billions of dollars. Under his previous term as prime minister, Sharif had to struggle for months to get a $3 billion bailout from the IMF.

The new prime minister has said he will seek a new IMF bailout after the end of March when the current one expires.

He is due to be sworn in on Monday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was among the first to congratulate Sharif on his election as Pakistan’s prime minister, the official Xinhua news agency reported Sunday

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