A day before Pakistan proceeds to general elections on Feb. 8, there are clear indications of which politicians are poised to lead the next government. Not in the running is Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) founder Imran Khan, popular but sidelined by three recent convictions that have left him jailed and disqualified from holding public office, indicating his fallout with the Army—which observers believe is “refocusing” on Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif is no stranger to rifts with the establishment; thrice-elected prime minister, he was ousted each time before completing his term, despite having been propped up as a foil for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) through much of the 1990s. His party, however, maintains the situation is different now, as his younger brother, Shehbaz, worked to repair ties as head of the coalition government that took over after Khan’s ouster through a vote of no-confidence in April 2022. For most pundits, this election is Sharif’s to lose, especially as he regains ground lost in Punjab in the 2018 elections. Throughout his campaign, he has sought to firm up his legacy, highlighting his daughter, Maryam, who many believe might take the reins as chief minister of Punjab.
Another contender is PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the youngest aspirant at just 35 years old. Backed by the charisma of his grandfather, Zulfikar Bhutto, and mother, Benazir, he also has the “political wisdom” of his father, former president Asif Zardari, to pave the way for his victory. However, it is unlikely he can reach the top slot without significant gains in Punjab, a tall ask, as the PPP has yet to regain its standing in the province after being virtually erased from it in 2013. During his campaign, Bilawal has indicated he hopes to make up these numbers by bringing into the PPP’s fold PTI-backed candidates who are all contesting as independents.
A true dark horse, who has yet to show any significant support in surveys or during the election campaign, is Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman. As leader of Pakistan’s “largest Islamist political party,” he has served as an opposition leader in the National Assembly, chairman of various parliamentary committees, and the president of the 13-party Pakistan Democratic Movement coalition, which ruled over the country for 16 months prior to elections. While not as popular as the other aspirants, it would be unwise to dismiss the powerful “religious element” that often plays a role in Pakistan’s “power-play.”
As in the past, there are several contenders for the next Prime Minister of Pakistan. With all indications of a coalition setup emerging after the polls, however, especially after the PTI’s loss of its electoral symbol, who rules Pakistan after Feb. 8 remains a question that no one can answer with any degree of certainty.