The brother of ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif took a small step closer to the premiership on Tuesday after he was named head of the ruling party before general elections due this year.
The promotion of Shahbaz Sharif comes after the Supreme Court last year toppled his elder brother Nawaz following corruption allegations, then last week banned him from leading his eponymous Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).
The move by the judiciary sparked fresh fears of political infighting within the PMLN before the elections due sometime in 2018, with Nawaz’s daughter Maryam Sharif gaining increasing influence over the party in recent months.
But the party presented a united front with the election of Shahbaz, while Nawaz was appointed the party’s guide “for life.”
“I propose the name of Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif,” Nawaz announced during a meeting in Lahore to huge applause. Maryam later tweeted a message congratulating her uncle.
The younger Sharif, currently the chief minister of Punjab province, is seen as a political dealmaker, with many crediting him for the string of by-election victories since his brother was removed from the premiership.
Nawaz Sharif first named Shahbaz as his successor shortly after he was ousted last July. But he designated current prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as interim premier, noting that his sibling must first be elected to the National Assembly before taking the top office.
The younger Sharif faces a rocky road ahead with elections to the Senate in early March.
In accordance with last week’s court ruling, all of the PMLN candidates will have to run as independents because they were selected by Nawaz.
Despite the court rulings against the PMLN, the party will likely remain a force at the polls after whipping its rivals in consecutive by-elections. The Sharif clan and their supporters have repeatedly denied allegations of corruption, suggesting Nawaz is the victim of a conspiracy driven by Pakistan’s military establishment.