Challenges ahead as Sharif wins third term in Pakistan

New prime minister will be under pressure to curb Islamist violence and fix economy

Supporters of Nawaz Sharif carry portraits of the Pakistani prime minister in Lahore yesterday as they celebrate his election victory. Photograph: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Supporters of Nawaz Sharif carry portraits of the Pakistani prime minister in Lahore yesterday as they celebrate his election victory. Photograph: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Mon, May 13, 2013, 01:00

Nawaz Sharif has been here twice before, and the last time it did not end well for him or for Pakistan.

Many of those celebrating the weekend election victory that will propel Mr Sharif (63) into his third spell as Pakistan’s leader have forgotten – or are too young to remember – how unpopular he was 14 years ago.

When he was ousted in a coup by Gen Pervez Musharraf in 1999, there was scant protest. Instead, Pakistanis exchanged sweets to mark the end of his reign, and an opinion poll showed three-quarters of the population initially approved of the army’s undemocratic takeover.

Mr Sharif did not have many friends abroad either, except for the Saudis, who accommodated him in exile.

“We won’t say publicly that we condone the takeover,” one western diplomat said at the time, “but we also recognise that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government was one of the most inept in this country’s history.”

In this election he profited from popular disgust with the corruption and incompetence of the outgoing civilian government under Asif Ali Zardari and anguish over the hundreds killed by Islamist extremists of the Pakistan Taliban.

According to projections based on early results, Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League won three times as many parliamentary seats as each of its main rivals, the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or Justice Movement of Imran Khan, the cricket star turned politician.

“We have been given a historic opportunity to serve Pakistan and to change Pakistan,” Mr Sharif told supporters in Lahore in a conciliatory victory speech.

As soon as he forms a government, Mr Sharif will face challenges on many fronts: he needs not only to rescue the economy and deal with terrorist attacks by the Pakistan Taliban but also to convince the world he has changed his ways.

“I remember I was in Lahore in 1999 and there was a big sigh of relief [at the time of the coup],” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst and author. “He was virtually undermining all other institutions. He had picked a fight with the military, he had picked a fight with the supreme court.”

Those who have supported the comeback of Mr Sharif say he has had time to reflect during his years in opposition to the PPP government, which was defeated at the polls on Saturday.

“Nawaz Sharif has matured a lot,” said one of the country’s leading businessmen, expressing the hope that the incoming government will move quickly to tackle electricity shortages and privatise inefficient state enterprises.

Mr Sharif has vowed to make Pakistan less dependent on foreign aid, but he recognises that one of his first tasks will be to strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund to stave off a balance of payments crisis.

The IMF expects to lend the country about $9 billion (€6.9 billion) in exchange for strict financial reforms. At the same time, the government must prepare a budget for the fiscal year beginning in July.

Fractured Pakistan
In politics, the election showed Pakistan to be fractured on regional lines, and Mr Sharif will need to reach out to provinces other than Punjab – where his party dominates – rather than favouring Punjab with investment, as he was accused of doing in his previous terms.

Mr Sharif is at least seen as potentially capable of managing the economy and pursuing political reconciliation, even if he sometimes lacks the will to enforce a coherent strategy.

He is not expected to try to stoke popular resentment of the US, on which Pakistan depends for military aid. The big test will come in his dealings with the armed forces that have run or influenced the country.

Mr Sharif is still bitter about his treatment by Gen Musharraf, who is facing charges of treason after an ill-advised return to Pakistan to launch his career as a civilian politician. Senior army officers have let it be known they would not take kindly to seeing Gen Musharraf face the death penalty.

Mr Sharif’s eagerness to make peace with India, seen as Pakistan’s enemy since partition in 1947, is another cause of concern to the generals.

He is under pressure from the military as well as civilians to curb Islamist violence and restore the economy – two tasks that the PPP government failed to perform. Running Pakistan again will not be easy, as he admitted after learning of his triumph at the polls. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013)