On March 3, Pakistan’s National Assembly confirmed Shehbaz Sharif as its new prime minister. A brother of the three-term prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz had led the previous government until the end of its term last year.

This time, though, the Sharifs’ party didn’t win the general election. The victory went to a collection of candidates aligned with the cricket hero Imran Khan, who’d been prime minister from 2018 until his ouster in 2022—and who’s been in prison, on the military’s command, since last May. After falling out with its leadership, Khan was barred from running for office, and members of his party were forced to run as independents. And yet, despite getting almost no coverage in Pakistan’s mainstream media, they won the most votes overall.

Now what?

Atika Rehman is the London correspondent and former managing editor for Dawn, the largest English-language newspaper in Pakistan. With Khan by far the most popular politician in the country, Rehman says, and with his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, unusually adept at keeping his supporters informed and engaged, the stunning success of the PTI’s candidates brings a serious new challenge to the vast influence the armed forces have held in Pakistan’s political life for generations.

Pakistanis had long accepted the military’s established authority over their country’s elected government. But Khan’s removal from office and subsequent conviction on dubious charges have driven a surge of citizens to their first open rejection of that authority. Which, Rahman says, seems to be taking the country into an era of new instability, as public support remains high for Khan—and scarce for the military-installed coalition now governing in his place.

Michael Bluhm: Imran Khan is in jail, his party was taken off the ballot, the media largely ignored the party’s candidates as independents—and they won. How’d this happen?

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