(Bloomberg) — Voting is underway in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab on Sunday for several by-elections that are a litmus test for Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government after Imran Khan was ousted in April following a protracted political battle.
A victory for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf will give the former leader the renewed momentum to pressure the government to hold early elections as he touts popular support for his grievances. The next elections must be held by October 2023.
Khan, a former cricket star, has accused the ruling coalition — made up of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan’s Peoples Party — of colluding with the military establishment and the US to push him out, an allegation they have denied.
Victories for the ruling coalition would give it the impetus to push through with unpopular reforms. The country secured a $1.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund last week to shore up dwindling foreign exchange reserves. The agreement will help unlock funding from other lenders.
“These by-polls are a popularity test for Khan and Sharif’s government,” said Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, a professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. The result “will have a decisive impact on the date as well as the outcome of the next general elections,” he said.
Punjab was under the control of the PTI party until April when then-Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar resigned after the federal parliament took up a no-confidence against Khan. The PTI’s subsequent nominee for the position was defeated as a faction among the party’s state lawmakers voted for the PML-N’s candidate instead.
Khan then successfully petitioned the Election Commission of Pakistan to remove the state assembly lawmakers for illegally voting against the party’s directive, leaving 20 seats vacant. It will be a close race as Sharif’s party currently holds 165 seats while PTI controls 163. Sharif controls the assembly with coalition members.
The election battle comes as the South Asian nation deals with the highest inflation in 13 years and as foreign exchange reserves drop to less than two months import cover. Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Pakistan’s outlook to negative last month.
Since coming to power, Sharif has taken unpopular decisions of raising energy prices and taxes as well as reducing spending to revive its bailout program with the IMF that would help the country to avoid a situation like Sri Lanka.
His government got a boost last week with a drop in oil prices allowing officials to reduce fuel prices ahead of the voting. That move has been the focus of by-election campaigns for the ruling parties in Punjab.
The province is a political stronghold for Sharif, who had been its chief minister three times and took a keen interest in infrastructure projects. His son Hamza Shehbaz is the incumbent chief minister of Punjab.
Khan has been holding rallies across Pakistan since being ousted as premier and has drawn large crowds. During campaigning for the by-elections, Khan has warned about government plans to rig the vote and described the poll as an opportunity to end dynastic family rule and the influence of the US.