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Shehbaz Sharif returns as Pakistan's prime minister, as protests hit parliament

FILE - Pakistan's former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif speaks during a press conference regarding parliamentary elections, in Lahore, Pakistan, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. Lawmakers in Pakistan's National Assembly elected Sunday, March 3, Shehbaz Sharif as the country's new prime minister for the second time.
K.M. Chaudary
/
AP
FILE - Pakistan's former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif speaks during a press conference regarding parliamentary elections, in Lahore, Pakistan, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. Lawmakers in Pakistan's National Assembly elected Sunday, March 3, Shehbaz Sharif as the country's new prime minister for the second time.

ISLAMABAD — 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 against his appointment, alleging rigging in last month's election.

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 majority.

Ayub enjoyed the backing of 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 whose results were announced after an unusual delay because of a nationwide mobile phone outage. Authorities said the cutting of communications was necessary to avoid militant 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 Imran 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 the military installations after his ouster in 2022, adding that now the parliament and the courts will decide whether those involved in attacking the military installations deserved a pardon.

Holding portraits of Khan, his allies stood in front of Sharif when he began his speech, shouting "vote thief" and "shame." Shared denounced their actions, saying they were causing chaos in parliament.

Sharif also said his biggest challenge was the economic situation for Pakistan has been relying on foreign loans to run the economy.

Sharif's government faces multiple issues, including how to respond to a surge in militant attacks, fix the ailing economy, 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.

Khan, who is currently serving prison terms in multiple cases and has been barred from seeking or holding office, wrote last week 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 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 — who replaced Khan after his ouster in a no-confidence vote in parliament in April 2022 — had to struggle for months to get $3 billion bailout from the IMF.

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

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press