The Three Candidates Vying to Be Pakistan’s Next Prime Minister

When veteran politician Nawaz Sharif returned from exile in London to run in Pakistan’s elections, analysts widely assumed there would only be one outcome. Now, that doesn’t seem quite so certain.

Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on election day. Photographer: Betsy Joles/Bloomberg
Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on election day. Photographer: Betsy Joles/Bloomberg

When veteran politician Nawaz Sharif returned from exile in London to run in Pakistan’s elections, analysts widely assumed there would only be one outcome: Sharif, blessed by the powerful military, would become prime minister for the fourth time.

Now, that doesn’t seem quite so certain.

Candidates backed by Imran Khan, running as independents, defied the odds by winning the most seats in the polls, showing the public’s disillusionment with the status quo of Pakistan’s politics, represented by the parties controlled by the Sharif and Bhutto clans — and the military itself.

The Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party are in talks to form a coalition government that would thwart Imran Khan and his candidates. But they haven’t been able to agree on who would become prime minister.

Here’s a look at the likely candidates.

Nawaz Sharif, 74

Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on election day.Photographer: Betsy Joles/Bloomberg
Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on election day.Photographer: Betsy Joles/Bloomberg

The older Sharif has been involved in politics for nearly five decades and has a history of disagreements with the generals. He was ousted three times as prime minister — once by the Supreme Court in 2017 after a corruption probe and twice by the army in the 1990s, one of which was a military coup. 

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Hailing from a industrialist family in Punjab, Sharif will push for business-friendly policies and restart the kind of mega-infrastructure projects that were the hallmark of his previous three terms if he becomes prime minister. He has kept on good terms with the US while also drawing billions of dollars of investment from Beijing to develop ports and highways, and taken a more conciliatory stance with arch-rival India. He’s likely to pursue those positions again. 

Critics say Sharif is famously known to be politically aloof and he can struggle to build consensus with allies, preferring instead to rely on a small circle of advisers, including family members.

This time, Sharif might also be thinking of the next generation. His daughter and political heir, Maryam Nawaz, won both a National Assembly seat and a provincial assembly seat in Punjab in her first time contesting in the elections. There’s speculation she could be made chief minister of Punjab, the country’s most populous province, which is also a traditional route to eventually leading Pakistan.  

Shehbaz Sharif, 72

Shehbaz SharifPhotographer: Asad Zaidi/Bloomberg
Shehbaz SharifPhotographer: Asad Zaidi/Bloomberg

The younger Sharif has been out in recent days talking to Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party about forming a coalition. It’s not the first time he has had to do this. In April 2022, his party joined forces with the PPP and several other groups to oust Khan in a no-confidence vote. He then became prime minister. 

Immediately after that, he helped Pakistan to avoid default by unlocking bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund. Then he secured a $3 billion loan program, which ends next month. He took unpopular steps, including removing fuel subsidies, to meet IMF conditions. But that also accelerated inflation in the run up to the elections. It’s running at 28%, the fastest pace in Asia. 

Shehbaz is well-regarded as an administrator and nicknamed “Shehbaz Speed” for his efficiency in overseeing infrastructure projects. He was chief minister of Punjab — the country’s most populous province — for 15 years. But critics said Sharif did little to address in the province’s key issues, including low literacy, and a lack of jobs for young workers

He’s also more conciliatory with people than his elder brother, and has maintained good ties with the military though he doesn’t have much public charisma, political analysts have said. It’s possible that Shehbaz will become the next prime minister as he is more suited to running a large coalition government, according to people familiar with the family’s thinking who asked not to be identified as the information is private. A representative for the family’s party said both brothers are being considered for prime minister. 

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Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 35

Bilawal Bhutto ZardariPhotographer: Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg
Bilawal Bhutto ZardariPhotographer: Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg

If he becomes prime minister, Bhutto Zardari would be doing so at the same age his mother, Benazir Bhutto, did. Both Benazir and her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, led Pakistan — and lost their lives as a result. Benazir was assassinated at a political rally in 2007. Zulfikar was executed in 1979 after a military coup.

Oxford-educated Bhutto Zardari, 35, was foreign minister in Shehbaz Sharif’s government. He has pitched himself as a fresh face in a country where more than 60% of the population is under 30. He plans to help the cash-strapped economy by slashing the number of federal ministries. He also became an avid campaigner for funds to combat climate change in Pakistan after the devastating flood last year.

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Critics say Bhutto Zardari will struggle to get out of the shadow of his father, the former president Asif Ali Zardari, who’s a political powerbroker in Karachi and the strategist behind the Pakistan Peoples Party. Zardari’s time in government was marred by allegations of corruption before his party was ousted by the Sharifs in the 2013 elections. He has said he wants to see his son become prime minister in his lifetime. 

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