Sharif’s return


Despite Taliban threats to attack polling stations on Saturday in what is already Pakistan’s most violent election, democracy, albeit imperfect, seems set to prevail – for the first time since independence a civilian government will complete a full term and hand over to another administration. This, in a country of 180 million people which the military has ruled for more than half of its 66-year history, either through coups or from behind the scenes.

Widespread disillusionment with the incompetence and perceived corruption of the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), its failure to deal with the continuing violence and most particularly with the disruption of continuing power cuts that have cut GNP by between three and four per cent, appears likely to propel Nawaz Sharif back to power.

Sharif, who leads the Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) and was twice prime minister in the 1990s, has alarmed the international community by arguing that Pakistan should reconsider its support for the US war on terrorism and suggests he would be in favour of negotiations with the Taliban.

The latter, who have killed more than 100 in the violence ahead of the election and have promised suicide attacks on polling day, have made clear they will not attack Sharif rallies, or those of Imran Khan, the populist former cricketer who is promising to clean up Pakistani politics and has also hinted at talking to the Taliban. Khan’s Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) party is eating into the Sharif lead particularly among disillusioned urban young men – those aged between 18 and 29 make up 46 per cent of the population, and many of them are eligible to vote for the first time.

In the end, however, the economic issues will be decisive to the result – falling living standards and inflation, a broken power system, and the reality that the first challenge of a new government will be to negotiate a new rescue package from the IMF. And meanwhile, from its barracks, the army watches and waits.