x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

With victory behind him, Sharif must find ways to deliver

With many hard decisions expected, Pakistan's new prime minister will need all the wisdom, support and luck to meet people¿s lofty expectations.

After a better than expected win on May 11 by the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N), led by two-time prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan awaits the change of government with much hope.

This is the first time in Pakistan's volatile 66 year history that a democratic civilian government will replace another. Hangings, dismissals, coup d'etats and assassination have accompanied all of Pakistan's previous elections.

Mr Sharif deserves credit for patiently waiting for five years when he could have easily joined others to topple the outgoing government of Asif Ali Zardari - arguably the most inept and corrupt in Pakistan's history.

Reflecting its consistent stand against US drones and calling for disengagement from the US-led war in Afghanistan, Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), swept the national and provincial assembly polls in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and made some inroads into Mr Sharif's strongholds in the Punjab. Mr Khan's campaign against corruption partly energised people to vote.

Except for a showing in Sindh, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and the Mutthida Qaumi Movement (MQM) were wiped out from the assemblies.

By eliminating the whole family of the former prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, and PPP from Southern Punjab, voters rejected the idea of dividing Punjab into smaller units. From 27 in the last assembly, the PPP could only win one seat in the area this time.

The media's role in bringing forth Pakistanis to vote shows in the reported voter turnout of over 60 per cent, rising from the measly 44 per cent during last elections in 2008.

Pakistan's elections were held amid the backdrop of a failing economy, debilitating power cuts, widespread corruption at the highest levels, militancy and the unpopular partnership with the US over its so-called "war on terrorism".

Notwithstanding total mismanagement by the PPP regime, PML-N's electoral success is largely due to the performance of the government of Punjab, led by Mr Sharif's brother, Shahbaz Sharif. The younger Mr Sharif has a reputation for getting things done and delivered several projects on time. Most importantly, he faces no corruption charges.

Nawaz Sharif's two previous terms as prime minister raises business confidence across Pakistan, partly because he is a businessman, too. The Karachi Stock Exchange 100 index crossed 20,000 for the first time in history within the first session of trading the day markets opened after Mr Sharif's victory.

"You see privatisation, free market economy, deregulation - they have been hallmarks of our party in government. We are going to pick up the threads from where we left off," said Nawaz Sharif following his triumph. Yet one goal - making a business community which is so used to tax evasion pay taxes - is not going to be easy.

Mr Sharif has said he could work with the IMF to put the economy back on track. The usual IMF recipe accompanied by cutting subsidies will be too much for the hard-pressed common man. "We need stabilisation with growth … all we need from the IMF is a little more time to pay back $5 billion that we owe them," said Sartaj Aziz, Mr Sharif's two-time finance minister who drafted the party's election manifesto.

In foreign policy, Mr Sharif faces four immediate challenges. Finding a balance in relations with India is an urgent task, where he will need to increase the momentum set by the previous government. Setting the tone during the "long chat" with India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, both invited the other to visit their respective countries. There is perhaps no better time for Pakistan and India to move forward.

With PML-N and PTI calling for the end of drone strikes, defining new terms of engagement with the US poses another big challenge. Any perception like the PPP policy of publicly opposing and privately condoning drone attacks will shorten Mr Sharif's honeymoon with the people. It is now for the US to respect the expressed wishes of Pakistanis.

The Saudis and GCC countries felt somewhat cut off during the previous regime, which they suspected was cosier with Iran. Balancing these relations between the two opposing sides will pose its own dilemma for the incoming government.

Among the most pressing challenges Mr Sharif faces is his relationship with the military. When earlier in power, these relations soured to a point of his removal by former president, Pervez Musharraf, in 1999.

A visibly chastened Mr Sharif has played down prospects of conflict with the military, which under General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has no proclivity to interfere in civil affairs. This will be tested when the military's interests over vital elements of foreign and security policy are reconciled with civilian control.

Having used their votes decisively, Pakistanis feel Mr Sharif is the harbinger of change for the better. This resounding win means that he is independent of smaller parties for forming government and will have fewer excuses in case of failure.

With many hard decisions expected, Mr Sharif will need all the wisdom, support and luck to revive a sagging economy, balance a foreign policy and meet people's expectations.

 

Sajjad Ashraf is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies, and a former member of Pakistan Foreign Service