Shehbaz Sharif spent decades in the shadow of his elder brother and three-time premier, Nawaz Sharif. Now, the younger Sharif has entered the limelight as Pakistan’s new prime minister after parliament ousted Imran Khan in a no-confidence vote.
The 70-year-old, who took office on April 11, has earned a reputation as an effective administrator and a pragmatist who is able to reach beyond party lines.
Unlike his brother, Sharif is also believed to have amicable ties with the country’s powerful military, which has an oversized role in the domestic and foreign affairs of the predominately Muslim South Asian nation of around 220 million.
But experts said Sharif is prone to public outbursts and lacks charisma and a strong political base. He is also mired in graft proceedings. In 2020, Sharif was arrested on money-laundering charges but later released on bail. Supporters said the charges were part of a political vendetta against him by Khan.
Sharif faces daunting challenges as leader, including curbing soaring inflation and repairing the fractured political landscape.
A Tough Administrator
Sharif served three times as the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and prosperous province. During that time, he oversaw a series of big infrastructure projects, including the country’s first metro bus service.
He earned a reputation as a tough administrator and a workaholic who made surprise visits to government offices. But critics said Sharif did little to address Punjab’s main issues, including low literacy, unemployment especially among youth, and low per-capita income.
Sharif left provincial politics in 2018, when he contested and won a seat in Pakistan’s lower house of parliament. He also took the reins of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), a center-right party led by his elder brother.
“He was never a popular leader in the past and he is not interested in being one now,” said Murtaza Solangi, a prominent Pakistani analyst and journalist. “He is not a very inspiring leader. But considering the challenges confronted by Pakistan right now, the country needs an efficient administrator even if he is uncharismatic.”
Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s most popular journalists, said Sharif’s skillset makes him a potent political force.
“His key strength is that he is a hardworking man,” said Mir. “He works day and night, and he is in constant motion. He speaks fluent German, Arabic, and English. Imran Khan put him behind bars because he knew the threat posed by Sharif.”
Mediator With The Military
The army fell out with Nawaz Sharif, who looked to curb the military’s traditional dominance of national politics. Sharif was removed from office in 2017 after his disqualification by the Supreme Court.
The elder Sharif, who was sentenced to seven years in prison on corruption charges, has denied wrongdoing and suggested collusion between the military and courts threw him from power. In 2019, he was allowed to leave the country to receive medical treatment in Britain, where he remains.
Unlike his brother, the younger Sharif has not spoken out publicly against the military’s interference in politics.
Observers said he often played the role of mediator when tensions broke out between his brother and the army in the past.
"Shehbaz Sharif would visit the headquarters of the Pakistani Army to resolve issues between Nawaz Sharif and the generals," said Bashir Chaudhry, a Pakistan-based analyst.
The army has staged three coups in the country’s 74-year history. Even during civilian rule, the military has often assumed the role of kingmaker. Criticism of the military establishment is widely considered a red line.
“Despite his loyalty to his brother, Shehbaz Sharif always avoided confrontation with the army, which is the reason why he is acceptable to the military establishment,” Mir said.