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What to know about Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan’s new prime minister

Shehbaz Sharif, then leader of the opposition, on April 7. Pakistan's Parliament elected Sharif as prime minister on April 11. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

It’s been a tumultuous week in Pakistani politics. The prime minister, Imran Khan, was ousted in a no-confidence vote Sunday after a week-long political drama that put the Muslim-majority country of 220 million on the brink of democratic collapse.

Khan, a former cricket star, came to power in 2018 promising a “new Pakistan” and the creation of an Islamic welfare state, having cultivated a loyal following among young Pakistanis. In recent months, he had struggled to deal with a deteriorating economy and serious inflation, made enemies among the opposition and lost the support of powerful military leaders.

He resisted an earlier no-confidence vote by dissolving the legislature in early April, claiming there was a foreign conspiracy to oust him. Opposition leaders turned to the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor Thursday, saying the vote had to be held.

On Sunday, Pakistan’s Parliament voted to oust Khan by 174 votes out of 342, two more than the simple majority needed. In his place, Shehbaz Sharif, a veteran politician and leader of the opposition, was elected prime minister by Parliament until Pakistanis can elect a leader in a general election, which must be called no later than July 2023. No Pakistani prime minister has completed a five-year term since the foundation of the country in 1947.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan ousted in no-confidence vote

Here’s what you to need to know about Pakistan’s new prime minister.

Who is Shehbaz Sharif?

Shehbaz Sharif was born in Lahore, Pakistan, on Sept. 23, 1951, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, who would become a three-time prime minister. Their father, Muhammad Sharif, founded the Ittefaq Group, a steel producer. Shehbaz Sharif followed in his father’s footsteps and became a businessman, co-owning a Pakistani steel company, according to Al Jazeera.

How did he get started in politics?

Shehbaz Sharif was the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and richest province, for three terms. During that time, he tackled ambitious infrastructure projects, earning a reputation for good governance and efficiency. “He is seen as someone who gets things done,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

He was elected Punjab’s chief minister for the first time in 1997; three years later, he went into exile in Saudi Arabia after a military coup led by Pervez Musharraf against Nawaz Sharif. Shehbaz Sharif returned to Pakistan in 2007 and was elected chief minister of Punjab for a second time in 2008.

He became the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, one of the country’s largest political parties, after his brother was given a prison sentence in 2018.

Nawaz Sharif was sentenced to 10 years for corruption and fined $10.6 million after the Panama Papers investigation, which looked into 11.5 million leaked documents and showed how the powerful and wealthy hid their fortunes in offshore accounts. Documents leaked from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian offshore provider, revealed how three of Sharif’s children — Mariam, Hasan and Husain — were linked to offshore companies that appeared as owners of four luxury apartments in London, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Nawaz Sharif denied any wrongdoing, and was barred from holding political office by the Supreme Court, in part because of an anti-corruption campaign led by Imran Khan. Shehbaz Sharif called the ruling by the Pakistani court “undemocratic.”

Nawaz Sharif’s legal troubles seemed to jeopardize the future of the Sharif political dynasty. Wealthy and powerful families have dominated Pakistani politics, most notably the Sharifs and the Bhuttos.

Shehbaz and his son and political heir, Hamza, who has been elected Punjab’s next chief minister, also have faced corruption allegations.

What challenges does Sharif face?

The country is in the midst of one of the worst inflation crises in Asia, with the cost of fuel and food 15.1 percent higher in mid-March than a year earlier, according to the Financial Times. Two-thirds of Pakistanis consider inflation to be Pakistan’s biggest problem, according to a Gallup poll quoted by the paper.

During a speech Sunday, Sharif promised to bring unity and to tackle the economy.

“The economic challenges are huge and we need to make a way out of these troubles. We will have to shed sweat and blood to revive the economy,” he said, according to Al Jazeera. He added that his government will speed up Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in Pakistan as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

It’s unclear whether Sharif will choose to be in power for a year and then hold elections, or call early elections. “That’s a big question. We don’t know yet,” Afzal said.

Unlike his brother, who lost favor with the military, Sharif is known to have a good relationship with military leaders, and he’s not a figure likely to antagonize them, Afzal said.

But there might be other challenges ahead.

“He’s never held national office before, other than being a leader of the opposition for the last three years, so this is going to be a test for him,” Afzal said.

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