Who are the key players in Pakistan's election?

From Nawaz Sharif to Asif Zardari and a jailed Imran Khan, these are the leaders to look out for

Powered by automated translation

Pakistanis began voting for their next government on Thursday after an election campaign marred by violence and with one of its main political parties contesting the polls with its leader in jail after a slew of convictions.

Tens of thousands of troops have been deployed at polling stations and across the country after two blasts near election offices killed 26 people in the southwestern province of Balochistan on Wednesday.

Unofficial first results are expected a few hours after voting closes at 5 pm local time, but a clearer picture will emerge early on Friday.

These are key players likely to play important roles in deciding the way forwards for the world's fifth most populist country as it grapples with increasing militancy and an economic crisis.

Nawaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, has been prime minister three times without his government surviving a full term. He returned from self-imposed exile last year and now appears to be the front-runner in the race for the premiership.

He first became prime minster in 1990, succeeding Pakistan's first female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, but was forced out of office three years later over corruption allegations.

He took office again in 1997 but was removed in 1999 by a military coup led by the then army chief in Gen Pervez Musharraf and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Mr Sharif served only 14 months before he was exiled to Saudi Arabia in 2000 on the condition that he stay out of politics for 21 years.

He returned to Pakistan in 2007 following negotiations with the Musharraf government and made a triumphant comeback in the 2013 general election.

However, he was removed as prime minister in 2017 following a corruption conviction and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released in 2019 on medical grounds and subsequently moved to the UK.

Mr Sharif, 74, is contesting this election from two constituencies, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Punjab province, while his brother Shehbaz Sharif is contesting from Lahore, the capital of Punjab.

Imran Khan

A star of Pakistan's cricket team, Imran Khan entered politics in 1996 with the founding of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

His anti-corruption stance and a promise of “change” resonated with people, leading to surge in popularity for his party.

Mr Khan became prime minister after the PTI's victory in the 2018 elections. However he began to lose the support of Pakistan's powerful military establishment amid growing tensions with army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and his successor, Gen Asim Munir, formerly head of Pakistan's intelligence agency. Mr Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote last April and has faced a raft of court cases since then.

In recent weeks Mr Khan, 71, was handed lengthy sentences in cases relating to the sale of state gifts, the leaking of state secrets and his allegedly unlawful marriage.

His party, now led by the lawyer Gohar Ali Khan, a member of his legal team, faced another setback when its electoral symbol, a cricket bat, was revoked by Pakistan’s election commission.

While Imran Khan is unable to contest the election because of his sentences, Gohar Ali Khan is standing in the Buner district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Asif Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari

The Pakistan People's Party is seeking to make a comeback under the leadership of Asif Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, and their son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

Asif Zardari, 68, has remained a significant political figure after his wife was assassinated in 2007, serving as president of Pakistan from 2008 to 2013.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 35, has taken over the leadership of the PPP and also enjoyed a high profile as foreign minister in Shehbaz Sharif's government.

Asif Zardari is contesting the election from Nawabshah in Sindh province – the party's political stronghold – while his son is standing in the Larkana district as well as in Lahore.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) party, has been a key opposition figure, often forming alliances to challenge the government, with a political agenda emphasising Islamic principles.

Mr Rehman, 70, has close ties with the Taliban government in Afghanistan as several of its leaders studied at religious schools affiliated with him in Pakistan.

Mr Rehman is contesting the election from Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Pishin district in Balochistan province where at least 17 people were killed in a bombing near a candidate's campaign office on Wednesday.

Constant factor

Although political rivals, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have in common that they both suffered downfalls at the hand of the military.

Sarfraz Khan, former director of the Area Study Centre at the University of Peshawar, said political leaders need to agree on supporting governance based on democratic principles.

“Political parties should sign a new ‘charter of democracy’, similar to the one previously signed by PPP leader Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, against any military coup,” Sarfraz Khan said.

He pointed out that when Nawaz Sharif fell foul of the security establishment, Imran Khan did not support him.

“This is why now the Sharif party also wants Imran to suffer in prison, as vengeance for what the Sharifs faced during Imran’s government,” he said.

Updated: February 08, 2024, 10:40 AM