x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Sharif poised for third term as leader of Pakistan

After being deposed in 1999, former PM says he is now ready to take on militants and the economy.

Supporters of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League celebrate victory after landmark general elections.
Supporters of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League celebrate victory after landmark general elections.

ISLAMABAD // After 14 years out of power, Nawaz Sharif is in a hurry to clean up what he calls Pakistan's mess.

Mr Sharif, who is poised to become Pakistan's next prime minister, was in talks Sunday to form a new government with his Pakistan Muslim League Party-Nawaz (PML-N), with fixing the shattered economy and tackling Islamist militancy likely to be his two biggest challenges.

Partial, unofficial results from Saturday's election represented a stunning comeback for the wealthy 63-year-old tycoon, who was deposed as prime minister in a 1999 military coup and spent years in jail and exile.

Mr Sharif appeared to have done well enough to rule out the prospect of a weak coalition, as the party of a former cricket star, Imran Khan, achieved its own breakthrough on an anti-corruption platform.

"The challenges are huge," he said during the last days of campaigning. "We have to bail out the economy."

Sartaj Aziz, a senior PML-N official and former cabinet minister, said Mr Sharif was in talks yesterday with some independent MPs to get them on board and in discussions to work out "a few key portfolios" in the cabinet.

Mr Sharif, who vows to bring in free market enterprise and ease economic controls, said speedy growth is the only answer for nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The powerful military still calls the shots in Pakistan, but the poll marked the first time that an elected government would be able to replace another one. Nevertheless, Mr Sharif will have to work with the generals, who control foreign policy and security.

The new civilian government will also have to play its part in Pakistan's difficult relationship with the United States.

Washington has a long-standing alliance with Pakistan, but is troubled by elements in the country supporting Islamic militants fighting US troops in neighbouring Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan in 2011.

In addition, the economy is stuttering. Power cuts that can last all day have infuriated Pakistanis and crippled key industries. Corruption and poverty are rampant, and infrastructure is crumbling.

Mr Sharif, who made his fortune in steel, seemed to have matured as a politician since he was toppled by the former army chief and president, Pervez Musharraf, in a bloodless coup in 1999.

As the main opposition leader, he avoided antagonising Pakistan's powerful army, or bringing down the Pakistan People's Party-led coalition government when it was in trouble. Instead, he waited patiently for an opportunity to rule. And now his moment has come.

The honeymoon will be short.

Pakistan needs billions of dollars from donors to avert a balance of payments crisis, but the cash may not flow to the South Asian nation unless politically sensitive economic reforms are implemented.

Mr Sharif served as prime minister twice in the 1990s, when he tried to promote free market policies.

Now he says he is willing to again risk a backlash, and cut government expenditure by 30 per cent to secure international backing for the economy.

"You see privatisation, free market economy, deregulation - they have been hallmarks of our party in government," he said. "We are going to pick up the threads from where we left off."

Mr Sharif's two terms as prime minister in the 1990s were marred by allegations of graft and Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests on his watch in 1998.

* With additional reports from Agence France-Presse