Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister and former captain of the national cricket team, tried every trick in the book to cling to power but eventually lost a no-confidence vote in parliament shortly after midnight on April 10, ending his nearly four years in office.
Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Imran’s predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, runs the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of another former prime minister and head of the second-largest opposition group, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has confirmed he wants Shehbaz to have the job, for now at least. But who is he?
Shehbaz Sharif doesn’t necessarily have the charisma that his brother Nawaz has or isn’t the crowd-puller that his niece Maryam is. Instead, his strength lies in his reputation as a competent administrator.
Born into wealth, Shehbaz embraced politics rather than his family business — much like his brother. The son of a wealthy industrialist, he studied at Government College Lahore and joined the family-owned Ittefaq Group that dealt in steel and iron. In 1990, when Nawaz won his first election as prime minister, Shehbaz was elected to the country’s general assembly. During his brother’s second term as prime minister in 1997, he became the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and powerful province.
However, two years later, when Nawaz tried to replace the head of the Army, both the brothers were deposed in a military coup. The family was imprisoned and then exiled to Saudi Arabia until 2007. After returning home, both eventually returned to their former posts. As Punjab’s chief minister, Shehbaz’s administration spent heavily on infrastructure. And when Nawaz was removed from office yet again in 2017, this time following corruption allegations, he was the obvious candidate to replace him — until he lost the 2018 elections to Imran. Since then, he has served as leader of the Opposition, and president of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party.
Often referred to as the “can-do administrator”, Shehbaz worked closely with China on Beijing-funded projects. He also said in an interview last week that good relations with the United States were critical for Pakistan for better or for worse, in stark contrast to Khan’s recently antagonistic relationship with Washington. During his three terms as the chief minister of Punjab, Shehbaz planned and executed a number of ambitious infrastructure mega-projects, including Pakistan’s first modern mass transport system in his hometown Lahore.
According to local media, the outgoing Chinese consul general wrote to him last year praising his “Punjab Speed” execution of projects under the huge China-Pakistan Economic Corridor initiative. The diplomat also said that he and his party would be friends of China in government or in opposition.
Like his brother Nawaz, he has also been accused of corruption, which the Sharifs say are politically motivated. In 2020, Sharif and his son Hamza, who is the leader of Opposition in Punjab, were indicted on charges of money-laundering, and UK froze the family’s bank accounts. After an investigation by Britain’s National Crime Agency failed to find evidence against Shehbaz, the case was dropped. However, it is still open in Pakistan, where the indictment of the two has been repeatedly deferred, most recently because of the imminent no-confidence vote.
Shehbaz’s reputation as an able administrator will be truly tested as Prime Minister. Pakistan’s economy is in a mess — inflation is at 13 per cent, and with the rupee sliding, a balance of payments crisis looms large.
Foreign relations also have to be mended as Imran, without evidence, had said that America was behind the effort to push him out. However, his party has always had good relations with Washington in the past and the damage that Imran might have done to the bilateral ties look to be short-lived.
The more pressing problem in foreign affairs remains Pakistan’s immediate neighbours. The Sharifs have had good relations with India and even the country’s current Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa has sounded conciliatory while talking about ties with New Delhi. He had said on April 2 that he wants talks with India and is ready to “move forward” over Kashmir.
“Pakistan continues to believe in using dialogue and diplomacy to resolve all outstanding issues including the Kashmir dispute and is ready to move forward on this front if India agrees to do so,” Bajwa had said.
Shehbaz will also have to deal with the “iron brother” China. The Sharifs were instrumental in setting up the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative to build infrastructure around the world and the brothers appeared to get on well with China’s government. The initiative, however, slowed under Imran as several key bits, such as a new railway, were stalled.
Afghanistan, where the reigns of power shifted to the Taliban last year, would be the most challenging part of Shehbaz’s foreign relations. The Taliban’s victory last year — when they seized power the moment US President Joe Biden pulled American troops out of Afghanistan — has emboldened Pakistan’s own jihadists, who have carried out several terrorist attacks, the most recent one being a week ago in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province when six security personnel were killed.
With no Prime Minister ever having completed a full term in office, Shehbaz will have his work cut out if he takes over as elections are pencilled in for late 2023.