Can Nawaz rescue Pakistan?

Authors: Viswesh Rammohan and Nabeel A Mancheri, NIAS

Over 46 million people exercised their right to vote in Pakistan in May earlier this year — close to 55 per cent of the population and a record turnout since 1988. Pakistan’s first transition from one civilian government to another is an incredible achievement for a country that has been under military rule for a large part of its history.

Nawaz Sharif is not a new name in Pakistani politics, and this time he had to overcome the biggest political challenge of his career by beating two big names in former-cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and the party of the incumbent president, Asif Ali Zardari. But even in the face of strong opposition Nawaz dominated the elections: he managed to secure 126 seats out of 272 in a direct election. Though the number wasn’t enough to form a single government, his landslide victory becomes obvious when one sees that the next best party’s tally is a meagre 33 seats.

Nawaz Sharif has been prime minister of Pakistan twice, from 1990–93 and again from 1997–99. In 1993, Nawaz resigned under pressure from the armed forces before the completion of his first term after he and President Ghulam Ishaq were locked in a political battle. His second reign was also short-lived: he was ousted from power in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf, the army chief of that time.

Nawaz’s third term isn’t going to be any easier. The situation in Pakistan has only gotten worse since the last time he was in power. Nawaz’s biggest threats are from the inside, not the outside. Various insurgent and terrorist groups including the Pakistani Taliban, which has always been described as being close to Al-Qaeda, organised election-related violence; most of them regard elections as un-Islamic. But the Taliban left Nawaz’s campaign relatively untouched because he wasn’t perceived as liberal or secular. He will have to act on the Taliban issue with utmost caution.

The threat from the Taliban and other terrorist organisations is not Nawaz’s only problem. Pakistan is facing a huge economic crisis, with low growth rates, dwindling foreign exchange reserves and high unemployment. Nawaz calls himself an ‘industrialist’, and is probably the best person to improve the economic situation. It doesn’t help that Pakistan can’t produce enough energy for itself: even the most industrialised province, Punjab, lacks power for over 20 hours a day, making the situation for factories and businesses worse and adding to the failing economy. This energy crisis was the most important election issue, and Nawaz’s promise to fix it may be why the people chose him.

The other big player in Pakistan politics has always been the army, which still does not seem to like Nawaz very much. While this time the army chose to stay out of the elections, Nawaz will have to work with it as he governs. The army still has considerable influence in all matters of national and international interest and Nawaz has to tread carefully.

If the internal problems of Pakistan aren’t hard enough to deal with, Nawaz’s problems are compounded by foreign relations. Pakistan’s future will be determined by its relations with its neighbours. On the one hand, the situation between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been tense post 9/11. With NATO troops pulling out of Afghanistan in 2014, Pakistan will be scrutinised constantly by the United States and the world as it deals with its western neighbour. Pakistan has said that its strategy in Afghanistan post-2014 is going to be one of ‘no interference and no favourites’. Easy to say, but Nawaz might find that policy difficult to implement in practice.

Then, as always, there is India. In his election campaign and several times previously, Nawaz has said that his most important goal is to improve relations with India. Nawaz is one of only a few Pakistani leaders who have reached out to their Indian counterparts. His reconciliation endeavour was rather short-lived, however, as India and Pakistan had a limited war over Kargil in Kashmir and Nawaz was later ousted by Musharraf. Nawaz always blamed Musharraf for acting alone on the Kargil. Much has changed in Pakistani politics since 1999 and there are expectations of better ties with India under Nawaz.

There are two contrasting pictures emerging about Nawaz. Some see him as a corrupt politician who has not done Pakistan much good. But there are a large number of people who believe that Nawaz has matured. These optimists believe that he now understands Pakistan much better than he did in 1999. Pakistan’s future remains bleak, but Nawaz can change it. The short-term strategy for Nawaz would be to improve the economy and solve the energy crisis. All of this has to be done along with maintaining good foreign ties, especially with India and Afghanistan. It is safe to say that Nawaz faces the huge burden of rescuing Pakistan. Might it be third time lucky for Nawaz?

Nabeel A Mancheri is an Assistant Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India.

Viswesh Rammohan is an intern at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India.