x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sharif promises to tackle Pakistan’s economic woes

After an unexpectedly strong victory in last week's elections, Nawaz Sharif said he has a plan to resolve Pakistan's most pressing problems at home while promising to strengthen relations with India and the United States abroad.

KARACHI // Fifteen years after a military coup ended his premiership, Nawaz Sharif has returned to power by appealing to Pakistani voters desperate for change after five arduous years of power cuts, Islamist violence and economic free fall.

After an unexpectedly strong victory in last week's elections, Mr Sharif said he has a plan to resolve Pakistan's most pressing problems at home while promising to strengthen relations with India and the United States abroad.

He will not have to form a coalition government with either of his party's chief rivals and the resulting expectations were reflected in the record high hit by the Karachi Stock Exchange yesterday.

In his campaign, Mr Sharif was cast as a pro-business reformer and a champion of civilian supremacy in a country that has seen long stretches of military rule. His supporters say his experienced team of advisers have what it takes to address the country's immense challenges.

Foremost among these is the electricity crisis that has crippled Pakistan's industries and is at the heart of its economic woes, which include soaring inflation and unemployment. Closed factories have cost the economy US$12 billion (Dh44bn) annually, as tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs.

But updating or replacing the decrepit national power grid in the short term is unlikely. Any delay could quickly eat away at Mr Sharif's post-election momentum.

"He has a more experienced economic team than any other party, but I don't think the situation can be improved in a short time," said Ghazi Salahuddin, a Pakistani analyst. "Every election raises expectations unrealistically, and then you have to live with the hangover."

Mr Sharif, 63, supports free-market economics and his advisers have said that privatisation and deregulation would be a central component of their policies.

It is almost certain that Mr Sharif will have to seek another bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund, and the conditions would mean he would also have to end subsidies for agriculture and expand the country's minuscule tax base.

Mr Sharif has long supported strengthening economic ties with India, which he began during his second term in office in the late 1990s. Expanding trade with Pakistan's arch-rival is hugely popular among Sharif's electoral base, many of whom are traders and businessmen.

Yesterday, he told reporters that he would be "very happy" to invite his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, to his swearing-in ceremony in Islamabad.

The idea of Indian investors entering the Pakistani market is less popular with the country's military, which has fought three wars with its traditional enemy. As Mr Sharif sought peace with India in 1999, then army chief General Pervez Musharraf launched a war that brought the neighbours to the brink of nuclear war. Mr Musharraf launched a coup that ended with Mr Sharif's exile in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Sharif has been an outspoken critic of the military's involvement in politics and control of security and foreign policy .

"It may create some friction but I'm sure he will not be rash on this front," said Mr Salahuddin. "It should be possible for him to assert more civilian control."

Mr Sharif is a religious conservative whose party has a chequered history of relations with militant Islamist groups, who it has used to provide votes. His position on how best to deal with Taliban militants has concerned Washington.

"This is a very important issue and our concern must be understood properly. We will sit with our American friends and we will certainly talk to them on this issue," Mr Sharif said yesterday.

He favours negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, but he will likely face resistance from the military, which has lost thousands of soldiers in fighting the group in the north-west of the country. But in the days since the elections, the Sharif camp has played down concerns. "The key point which Nawaz Sharif emphasises in our manifesto is we can't negotiate with people who don't accept our writ, our constitution, our parliament, our judiciary," Sartaj Aziz, a senior official of Mr Sharif's party, told Agence France-Presse.

While his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, refused $100 million in US aid for Punjab province while he was chief minister, as a protest against US drone strikes, the elder Sharif took a more measured stand on the issue during the election campaign.

His government will need to work closely with the military, as well as Washington and Kabul, to help bring the Afghan Taliban into Afghanistan's political process as the US withdraws its forces next year. The results for Pakistan would be disastrous if the insurgency on its border was left to fester.

On this front, Mr Sharif has also sought to allay concerns of interference by Pakistan.

"We will extend full support to them and we will see everything goes smoothly," Mr Sharif said, hours after President Barack Obama said Washington was ready to work with Islamabad "as equal partners".



* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse