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Why Nawaz Sharif failed to win Pakistan election despite tacit army support

The three-time PM’s party fell short in the election, as Imran Khan’s candidates emerged on top. Now Sharif faces tough choices as he tries to form a government without a popular mandate.

Islamabad, Pakistan — When Nawaz Sharif, the three-time former prime minister, emerged on the balcony of his party’s headquarters in Lahore on Friday night, fireworks went off as he was given a rousing welcome by the crowd of nearly 1,500 people.

Sharif started out with what has now become the staple of his public addresses, asking the crowd of his Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) supporters, “Do you love me?”. The response, “We love you!”, echoed among his adoring audience.

Yet, more than three days after Pakistan voted in general elections, there is little evidence that the sentiment of Sharif’s core supporters is shared by the wider public in the nation of 241 million people that stunned analysts in their voting patterns on February 8.

For weeks before the elections, the PMLN was viewed by experts as the favourite to secure a clear victory that would give the 74-year-old political veteran another chance to rule Pakistan. Once targeted by Pakistan’s military establishment, Sharif appeared to have won the favour of the generals for the 2024 vote.

So confident were Sharif and the PMLN of their win that they had scheduled a victory speech from their leader for Thursday night, barely hours after polls closed. Then, the results started coming in, and the bubble was burst.

“As the voting patterns emerged, it shocked and surprised the party, forcing a rethink which is why they were in complete silent mode for nearly 12 hours,” said Majid Nizami, a political analyst, and a specialist on elections.

When Sharif finally addressed supporters