Pakistan’s deposed former Prime Minister Imran Khan has swept a key by-election, reinforcing his opposition party’s call for the embattled coalition government to announce early general elections in the country.
Khan was a candidate for seven of the eight seats up for grabs in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, in Sunday’s vote, calling it a “referendum” on his popularity.
The 70-year-old politician grabbed six of the seats while the other two were taken by the Pakistan Peoples Party, a major coalition partner in current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government.
Candidates can stand in multiple seats in Pakistan elections and must choose which seat to surrender if they win more than one.
The victory suggested Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party remains the most popular political force in the South Asian nation of about 220 million people.
The former cricketer-turned-populist politician was removed from power in April through a parliamentary no-confidence vote advanced by the opposition alliance led by Sharif. Khan was accused of mismanaging the country’s economy and foreign policy, charges he rejected.
Since his ouster from office, Khan has addressed dozens of nationwide anti-government rallies drawing tens of thousands of supporters in his bid to press for snap national elections, accusing Sharif’s government of plunging Pakistan into political and economic turmoil.
The PTI has already scored a series of by-election victories, and in July regained power in Punjab, the country’s most populous province. Khan’s party legislators resigned from parliament in April in line with his orders to protest over the PTI government’s removal. Elections for those seats are being held in phases.
However, the deposed Pakistani leader maintained that contesting these by-elections was not meant to return his party to parliament but to show that the incumbent government lacks public support and confidence.
“I have repeatedly said that it’s not a simple election, it’s a referendum,” Khan told reporters in Islamabad after Monday’s thumping victory.
“The results show that the nation wants fresh elections, and they don’t accept this imported government for being an outcome of foreign conspiracy,” the opposition leader asserted.
Khan alleges without evidence that the no-confidence vote was orchestrated by the United States in collusion with Sharif and the Pakistani military. Both Washington and Islamabad deny the accusation.
The opposition leader warned that his party plans to march on Islamabad to push the government to immediately announce early elections.
“They still have time to announce elections, and if they don’t, I will begin my march, and my preparations are almost complete,” Khan said.
Pakistani Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb rejected Khan’s demand, saying the government and parliament cannot be dictated by him. She alleged that Khan’s march on the federal capital was meant to “create anarchy in the country.”
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, an independent group promoting democracy, noted that the outcome of Sunday’s by-elections showed a significant increase in the PTI vote bank.
‘The increase in PTI combined vote share in eight constituencies from 37% in [the] 2018 general election to [a] whopping 49% yesterday is remarkable!” Mehboob said on Twitter.
Sharif’s government has been under growing public pressure and criticism for being unable to contain soaring inflation and oil prices, and overcome other economic challenges, including rapidly depleting foreign exchange reserves.
The financial crisis has deepened since mid-June when unprecedented floods hit Pakistan, forcing more than 8 million people from their homes and causing what officials estimate are billions of dollars in economic losses.
Khan’s party won the 2018 general elections in Pakistan on a populist platform to combat rampant corruption and introduce social reforms, accusing his predecessors of siphoning away billions of dollars to their foreign bank accounts while in power. But his ousted government had faced sustained criticism for failing to deliver on his promises.