The party of former three-time Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif officially launched its general election campaign Monday with a rally in Punjab province, while analysts and his imprisoned rival accused authorities of attempting to rig next month’s vote.
The much-awaited rally that Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party held in the city of Okara came a week after the Supreme Court scrapped a lifetime ban on politicians with convictions from running for public office.
The Jan. 8 ruling removed the last possible hurdle to Sharif running for parliament and potentially securing a fourth term as prime minister. Sharif stepped down as prime minister in 2017 over corruption charges.
However, his 2028 conviction and sentences in graft cases were overturned on appeal after his return from self-exile, which election officials had said made him eligible to seek a parliament seat in the country’s Feb. 8 election. Lawmakers will elect the next prime minister after the vote.
Analysts say the Pakistan Muslim League is likely to win many parliament seats and may end up in a position to form a new government after the election. Election officials have rejected the candidacies of imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan and most members of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, party.
Khan’ was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April 2022, but he remains a leading political figure despite his conviction in a graft case. Elections officials barred Khan from the ballot because of the conviction.
Sharif’s daughter, who is the chief organizer of his party, traveled to Okara from the eastern city of Lahore to launch the election campaign. In her televised remarks, Maryam Nawaz asked people to vote for PML candidates and restore the party to power.
The rally was held two days after another Supreme Court ruling upheld the Dec. 22 decision by the Election Commission of Pakistan to deprive Khan’s party of its previously used election symbol of a cricket bat. Khan is a former professional cricket player.
The election commission argued that PTI did not fairly hold its internal election last month for a party leader to replace Khan given his conviction. The party elected Gohar Khan.
Khan’s party has said it does not plan to boycott the election despite its allegations of a coordinated effort to prevent it from fielding candidates and potentially governing Pakistan.
Many other politicians, including former Foreign Affairs Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who heads the Pakistan People’s Party, have also stepped up their campaigning for the parliamentary election.