Pakistan swears in new parliament amid chaotic scenes as Imran Khan's followers protest vote count

AP , Thursday 29 Feb 2024

Pakistan's National Assembly swore in newly elected members of parliament on Thursday in a chaotic scene as allies of imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan shouted and protested what they claim was a rigged election.

Members of the media and security personnel gather at the main entrance of the National Assembly bui
Members of the media and security personnel gather at the main entrance of the National Assembly building, as the opening session of parliament commences, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. AP

 

Lawmakers from Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party repeatedly chanted "Vote-thief!” as Shehbaz Sharif, who's expected to form the next government, entered the parliament with his brother Nawaz Sharif. Both men are former premiers.

Outgoing National Assembly Speaker Raja Pervez Ashraf administered the oath to incoming legislators at noon.

The parliament will elect a new prime minister on Sunday, with Shehbaz Sharif facing only one rival in the vote — senior leader Omar Ayub of Khan's PTI.

Ayub, like other lawmakers backed by Khan — who was barred from running in the Feb. 8 election — joined the Sunni Ittehad Council to meet a legal requirement to sit in the legislature as PTI was barred from the ballot under its official name and its candidates had to contest the election as independents.

The house echoed with chants of “Long Live Sharif!” when the Sharif brothers signed the register after taking their oaths of office. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the young chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party and a key Sharif ally, was met with similar chants.

The new government will face challenges, including a surge in militant attacks and shortages of energy — as well as an ailing economy that will force Pakistan to seek another bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Lawmakers from Khan's PTI told reporters that they will continue their campaign, both inside and outside the parliament, to protest the rigging of the election and the vote count.

“Yes, the election has been rigged,” insisted Gohar Ali Khan, the current head of PTI.

PTI has called for nationwide rallies on Saturday. The party claims its results were changed in dozens of constituencies to prevent it from winning a majority, a charge the Election Commission of Pakistan denies.

The election was held against the backdrop of multiple deadly militant attacks, and the U.S. State Department later criticized the authorities for restricting freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Authorities imposed a mobile services outage on election day.

The European Union also criticized the inability of some political actors to contest the elections. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry has fired back at such criticism, saying the vote was held in a free, fair and transparent manner.

None of the foreign observers who were monitoring the election described widespread vote-stealing.

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Party, or PML-N, and Pakistan People’s Party of former President Asif Ali Zardari, emerged as the largest presence in the 336-seat National Assembly, or lower house of the parliament.

Under a power-sharing formula, Sharif's party will support Zardari in next month's presidential elections. Outgoing President Arif Alvi is an ally of Khan and was a senior member of PTI before becoming president.

Khan is currently serving prison terms in multiple cases and has been barred from seeking or holding office. He has been convicted on charges of corruption, revealing official secrets, and violating marriage laws in three separate verdicts and sentenced to concurrent prison terms of 10, 14, and 7 years.

Khan claims the cases are politically motivated and engineered to keep him from returning to power and is appealing all the convictions. He still faces some 170 legal cases on charges ranging from corruption to inciting violence and terrorism.

On Wednesday, the PTI wrote a letter to the IMF, urging it to link any talks with Islamabad to an audit of the Feb. 8 election, which the party alleges was rigged. This comes days before the IMF releases a key installment of a bailout loan to Pakistan.

The letter has drawn widespread criticism from Khan's rivals, including Sharif, who said the former cricket star turned Islamist politician wanted to harm the country's economy.

Under his previous term as prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif — who replaced Khan after his ouster in a no-confidence vote in parliament in April 2022 — had struggled to avoid a default on foreign payments last summer when the IMF approved the much-awaited $3 billion.

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

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