Pakistani Chief Minister of Punjab province Shahbaz Sharif embraces his brother and ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif after being elected President of ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party at the General Workers Council in Islamabad on Tuesday. Image Credit: AFP

ISLAMABAD: The brother of ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif formally took charge of the country’s ruling party Tuesday, a day after being outmanoeuvred in elections for Senate chairman — sparking accusations of foul play.

The debacle at the Senate was the latest blow to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) following a string of court decisions targeting the party — including the removal of Nawaz from the premiership for graft in July.

Despite the loss at the Senate, new PML-N leader Shahbaz Sharif appeared upbeat during a party meeting in Islamabad, praising his brother’s leadership ahead of general elections due later this year.

“Nobody including me can imagine taking the place of Nawaz Sharif,” Shahbaz told a roaring crowd chanting party slogans.

In late February, the party cleared the way for Shahbaz’s promotion to head the PML-N, spurring renewed speculation that he would be its choice for prime minister if it prevailed at the polls.

The younger Sharif, currently chief minister of the powerful Punjab province, is seen as a political dealmaker, with many crediting him for successive by-election victories since his brother was ousted.

Steep challenges

But he faces steep challenges after the party’s candidate lost in the race to lead the upper house just weeks after winning the largest number of seats in the Senate.

The PML-N cried foul, following an unlikely alliance forged by the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the Pakistan People’s Party.

Independent candidate Sadiq Sanjrani — a relatively unknown figure — secured 57 votes in the 104-seat house in the secret ballot, triggering veiled accusations that Pakistan’s powerful security establishment had a hand in the outcome.

“Being herded like sheep and goats, the nation has seen your real face today,” tweeted Nawaz’s daughter Maryam.

The Sharif clan and their supporters have repeatedly denied allegations of corruption, suggesting Nawaz is the victim of a conspiracy driven by the military.

Despite the court rulings against the PML-N, the party will likely remain a force at the polls after whipping its rivals in consecutive by-elections.