Politics, Asia - Pacific

Who are the frontrunners in Pakistan’s crucial elections?

Tough contest is expected between three mainstream political parties: Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Pakistan People’s Party

Aamir Latif  | 07.02.2024 - Update : 14.02.2024
Who are the frontrunners in Pakistan’s crucial elections?

- A party needs to win 169 seats in the National Assembly, the 336-member lower house of Parliament, to form a government with simple majority

- Next prime minister will be elected by new Parliament, with three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif currently seen on course for a fourth term

KARACHI, Pakistan 

Millions of Pakistanis will head to the polls on Thursday amid a grinding combination of economic and political crises.

Over 128 million people, 45% of them between the ages of 18 and 35, are eligible to cast their ballots to elect a new government for a five-year term.

Thousands of candidates, both independents and affiliated with parties, are vying for 266 seats in the National Assembly, the 336-member lower house of Parliament. The remaining 70 seats are reserved for women and minorities.

A party requires 169 seats to form the government with a simple majority.

Pakistan follows a parliamentary form of democracy, where the lower house elects the prime minister, who himself must be a member of the National Assembly.

The four provincial assemblies elect their respective leaders, or chief ministers, in the same manner.

No prime minister has completed a full five-year tenure in Pakistan’s history of more than 75 years.

Parties can forge an alliance in parliament to form a coalition government, but no individual parliamentarian can vote against his or her party for the prime minister’s election, according to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

Northeastern Punjab, the country’s most populous and richest province, has the most seats, 141, whereas mineral-rich Balochistan, the smallest province population-wise but largest in terms of land, has only 16 National Assembly seats.

Sindh, the second-largest province located in the country’s south, and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) have 61 and 45 National Assembly seats, respectively.

The federal capital Islamabad has three National Assembly constituencies.

This breakdown essentially gives Punjab, which has some 60% of Pakistan’s total population of around 240 million, the power to decide which party forms the federal government.

Who are the frontrunners?

While over 100 political parties are contesting the elections, a tough fight is expected between three mainstream forces: Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

All three have their particular strongholds when it comes to provinces – Punjab for PML-N, KP for PTI and Sindh for the PPP.


Led by three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the center-right PML-N is being viewed as the favorite to form or lead the next government.

The party is one of the several breakaway groups of Pakistan’s founding party, which was established in 1906 before the partition of the Indian subcontinent.

Founded in 1993, PML-N has had four stints – 1990 to 1992, 1997 to 1999, 2013 to 2018, and 2022 to 2023.

However, the party has completed its constitutional five-year term just once – 2013 to 2018.

Two of Sharif’s previous governments were dismissed – on corruption charges in 1992 and through a bloodless military coup in 1999.

He was disqualified from office by the country’s top court in 2017 and subsequently sentenced to 10 and seven years in jail in two corruption cases stemming from the whistleblower Panama Papers scandal.

In 2019, he went to London for medical treatment but only returned late last year. Both his convictions and lifetime disqualifications have been overturned by the appellant court and parliament, respectively.

The party has strong roots in Punjab, especially in the industrial part of the province. It also has a solid vote bank in parts of KP and Balochistan, but mainly relies on Punjab.

The party is also known as the GT Road party, a reference to its popularity in cities located along the historic Grand Trunk Road, one of Asia’s oldest and longest major routes, from the garrison city of Rawalpindi to the border districts of KP.


Founded by the country’s jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan in 1996, the PTI is considered to be the only party with roots in all four provinces.

It emerged as the largest party in the 2018 elections formed a coalition government, until Khan was ousted through a no-trust vote in April 2022.

After a cumbersome legal battle, the PTI has lost its traditional electoral symbol, a cricket bat, an ode to Khan’s career as a World Cup-winning captain.

That has left the party with no option but to field its candidates as independents.

Khan himself is languishing in a jail in Rawalpindi, facing multiple civil and criminal cases.

He was sentenced to a total of 31 years last week in three cases that accused him of exposing state secrets, illegally purchasing and selling gifts he received as prime minister, and violating Islamic marriage law.

Khan had also been sentenced to three years in prison and subsequently disqualified by the Election Commission of Pakistan last year in a case where he was accused of concealing details of gifts he received as prime minister.

That sentence, however, was suspended by a high court.

Hundreds of PTI supporters are also in jail following violent protests and attacks on military installations in May last year after Khan’s brief arrest in a corruption case in Islamabad.

Latest surveys show Sharif and Khan are neck-and-neck at the moment, with the latter enjoying an overall edge.

However, in bellwether Punjab, Sharif has a slim lead over his arch-rival.

The PTI, according to surveys, is in a commanding position in KP, a province it has governed for two consecutive terms.

Whereas in Punjab, it is the only party that poses a serious threat to the PML-N, despite the fact it is not contesting as a party.


The center-left PPP has ruled Pakistan four times since 1970.

Founded by former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1967, the party came into power just three years later in 1970.

Bhutto’s government was toppled in July 1977 by then-army chief Gen Zia-ul-Haq on the charge of rigging the elections held that year.

He was later hanged in a murder case in 1979.

His daughter and the first woman prime minister of the Muslim world, Benazir Bhutto, came into power twice – 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996.

Both her governments were dismissed on corruption charges before completing their constitutional terms.

Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi in 2007 during an election rally.

Her party is now jointly led by her widower, former President Asif Ali Zardari, and her son, ex-Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

The PPP came into power in the 2008 elections and completed its five-year term in 2013.

While it was once Pakistan’s most popular party, the PPP has now almost been wiped out in Punjab, KP and Balochistan amid a series of corruption scandals.

However, it still has a strong vote bank in Sindh, where it has ruled for three consecutive terms from 2008 to 2023.

It is again billed to be the single largest party in Sindh, though it is facing a strong challenge from the mainstream religiopolitical Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party and the Grand Democratic Alliance, a conglomerate of regional forces from different parts of the province.

Apart from the three main players, the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) and JI are expected to win constituencies in pockets of KP, Balochistan and Sindh, particularly in the commercial capital Karachi, where JI has covered sizable ground in recent local polls.

For the overall outcome, political analysts see high chances of a coalition government, with no party being able to secure the magic number of 169 seats in the National Assembly.

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