Imran Khan To Nawaz Sharif: Main Players In High-Stakes Pakistan Elections

Main Players In High-Stakes Pakistan Elections

Imran Khan To Nawaz Sharif: Main Players In High-Stakes Pakistan Elections

Both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif are expected to play key roles in the polls.


Pakistan goes to the polls on Thursday following a lacklustre election campaign overshadowed by court battles and accusations by rights groups that the vote is not being held on a level playing field.

Here is a look at the main players:

Nawaz Sharif

Dubbed the “Lion of Punjab”, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is expected to win enough seats to govern alone or form a ruling coalition, allowing him to become prime minister for a fourth time.

He has never completed a full term, however, and between stints in power or in the opposition has spent years in jail or in exile abroad after being convicted in multiple graft cases.

The 74-year-old is one of the nation’s wealthiest men, from a family that built its fortune in the steel business and has shared power for several decades.

Often draped in a Gucci scarf, he is admired by supporters for his approachable “man of the soil” demeanour.

He is seen as a fiscal conservative, champion of economic liberalisation and free markets, and also keen on improving ties with arch-foe India.

The military

The army, considered the country’s strongest institution, has ruled Pakistan for roughly half its nearly 76-year history, and is widely believed to control foreign and defence policy even during periods of civilian rule.

They are also the guardians of the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile since Pakistan became an atomic power in 1998, weeks after India announced the same.

With nearly 1.5 million active service members and reserves, the military is the world’s 10th biggest, according to the Institute for Strategic Studies.

Political parties and their leaders rise and fall with the backing of the generals, although the army routinely denies interfering in elections.

The military is the country’s biggest landowner, its chief of staff sits on the Special Investment Facilitation Council — the country’s top economic decision-making body — and the boards of charities, sporting associations, state enterprises and parastatals are dominated by retired officers.

Imran Khan

A former prime minister booted from office by a vote of no confidence in April 2022, Khan will sit out this election due to a series of jail sentences, including 14 years for graft, 10 for treason and seven for what the court dubbed an illegal marriage under Islamic law. He has also been disqualified from politics for a decade.

His influence will still loom large, however, and despite being severely hamstrung by the military establishment his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party could still put in a good showing this week.

It would be easy to write off the charismatic former international cricketer’s political career, but Khan won matches from seemingly impossible positions as national captain, and Pakistan has seen dozens of politicians sentenced to lengthy prison terms — only to see them overturned when they are back in favour.

Khan enjoyed genuine popular support when he became prime minister in 2018, but he fell out spectacularly with the military establishment that nurtured his rise.

He then waged a risky and unprecedented campaign of defiance against the military, but when his supporters trashed an army commander’s HQ last May after his first arrest, it was a final straw.

Shehbaz Sharif

Nawaz’s younger and less charismatic brother, Shehbaz became prime minister in 2022 after Khan was booted out in a National Assembly vote of no confidence.

Analysts say he would not make any important decision without first consulting his brother — exiled in London to escape a jail sentence — but they are known to disagree on some issues, including the military.

A workaholic who dresses usually in safari suits, Shehbaz has been at the forefront of a lacklustre PML-N election campaign, often leading rallies in the absence of his brother.

Observers suggest he will be given a senior role in any government his brother may form — likely in charge of a key planning ministry.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari

Bhutto-Zardari’s family were once centre-stage in Pakistan’s politics, their fortunes rising and falling in a Shakespearean saga of tragedy and power.

He is the son of Benazir Bhutto, the world’s first Muslim woman leader, who was twice elected prime minister and assassinated in 2007. His grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also a prime minister, was ousted in a coup and executed in 1979.

His father Asif Ali Zardari has previously been president of Pakistan, nicknamed “Mr 10 percent” by many in Pakistan because of numerous accusations of corruption.

The floppy-haired 35-year-old enters Thursday’s election with his first experience of statesmanship, having served as foreign minister in the coalition that ousted Khan in 2022.

While his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is unlikely to win enough support to govern alone, their dominance of southern Sindh province gives them clout with anyone seeking to form a coalition.