Imran Khan has won a critical victory in by-elections in Pakistan’s most populous province, putting the former prime minister on track to force early parliamentary polls just months after he was ousted from office.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, or Pakistan Justice party, won 15 of the 20 seats contested in Punjab as voters vented their fury over spiralling living costs.
The province, home to about 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population of more than 220mn, has long been considered the political stronghold of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his brother Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister.
Khan’s victory was achieved less than four months after the ex-Pakistan cricket captain lost a vote of no confidence in what he has alleged was a foreign-orchestrated coup.
It also came amid warnings from analysts that Pakistan is at risk of following crisis-ridden Sri Lanka as the next emerging market to default on its foreign loan repayments.
On Monday, Khan renewed a call for early elections ahead of the summer of 2023, when they are due to take place. “The only way forward from here is to hold free and fair elections under a credible ECP,” Khan wrote on Twitter, referring to the Election Commission of Pakistan.
“Any other path will only lead to greater political uncertainty and further economic chaos.”
Ali Zaidi, a senior PTI leader, called on Sharif to resign as prime minister. “The question now is, will prime minister Sharif resign first, or will he have to go [be forced out],” he said.
Analysts said that the turnround in the by-election was prompted by Sharif’s introduction of painful belt-tightening measures required to resume lending under a proposed $7bn IMF programme.
Last week, Pakistan’s government and the IMF announced a staff agreement that will release $1.2bn for the country as it seeks to avert a balance of payments crisis.
“This result has demonstrated the political cost of adopting painful measures at such a difficult time,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political commentator. “I think it will be hard for any leader to accept more pain for the people without also fearing the political cost.”
Pakistan has removed fuel subsidies as part of its negotiations with the IMF, leading to a sharp increase in prices. Sharif and other cabinet members have attributed the costs to the higher global energy and commodity prices driven by the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Inflation rose to 21.3 per cent in June, the highest level in nearly 13 years, while the central bank’s US dollar reserves have fallen to as low as $9.8bn, equivalent to five weeks of imports.
Krisjanis Krustins, a Fitch analyst, wrote in a research note published on Monday that Pakistan faced “sharply higher external funding needs this year, just as political volatility, a mixed policy response and tighter global conditions limit availability of funding”.
Some ordinary Pakistanis welcomed Khan’s victory. “Never before have I been similarly happy over the defeat for a prime minister as I am today. Shehbaz Sharif, go home,” said Ikram Malik, an Islamabad shopkeeper.
“We want Imran Khan to return. At least life was not this expensive.”