The first time Nawaz Sharif became prime minister of Pakistan was almost a quarter-century ago. His second term was ended fourteen years ago by a military coup that drove him into exile. Now he’s back, a good deal older — but is he any wiser?
Pakistanis seem to think so — or at least Punjabis do. Almost all of the seats won by his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Party in last Saturday’s election were in the province of Punjab, which has more people than all of Pakistan’s other provinces combined.
That weakens the legitimacy of his victory, but with the support of some candidates who won as independents, he will have no trouble in forming a majority government.
The question is: what will that government do?
It’s a good question because Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country of 160 million people that has borders with India, Afghanistan and Iran. It is also, in the view of some observers, fairly close to being a “failed state”.
Everybody knows that Nawaz Sharif is conservative, pro-business, and devout. During his second term, he tried to pass a constitutional amendment that would have enabled him to enforce Sharia law, but he hasn’t been tremendously forthcoming about his actual plans for his third term. And some of the things he did say have caused concern in various quarters.
The thing that most worries the United States is his declaration that Pakistan should end its involvement in the US-led “war on terror”. The army in unhappy about his proposal that the government should negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban (who conducted a campaign of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings against the “secular” political parties in the recent election) rather than just fighting them.
And everybody is wondering what Nawaz will do about the economy. The country’s balance of payments is in ruins, and it cannot meet its foreign debt obligations without negotiating new loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Those loans would come with onerous conditions about balancing the budget and fixing the tax system, and they wouldn’t come at all without American support.
Pakistan is technically a middle-income country, but during the outgoing government’s five years in office power shortages grew so acute that most regions are facing power outages for up to 12 hours a day. Millions of vehicles fuelled by natural gas have been immobilised by gas shortages. The country desperately needs foreign investment, but the plague of Islamist terrorism frightens investors away.
Finally, the United States will be withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan next year, and Nawaz Sharif will have to decide what he wants to do about the Taliban in that country (who still have the tacit support of Pakistan’s army). The key to all these puzzles, oddly enough, may lie in the incoming prime minister’s determination to improve relations with India.
In each of his previous terms, he tried very hard to make peace with India but was thwarted both times by the Pakistani army. The current military chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is due to retire at the end of this year (after a three-year extension in office), and this will give Nawaz a chance to replace him with someone less committed to perpetual confrontation with India. Then many things would become possible.
An end to the military confrontation would open the door to large-scale Indian investment in Pakistan (including pipelines bringing oil and gas from Iran and Central Asia). It would let Pakistan cut the military budget down to size. And it would end the army’s tacit support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is all about ensuring that Pakistan has a friendly government in Kabul to give it “strategic depth” in its long cold war with India.
The Taliban will inevitably be part of any post-occupation government in Afghanistan, but without Pakistani support they will have to strike a deal with other forces rather than just taking over. That outcome would greatly mollify Washington and make it easier for Islamabad to get new loans from the World Bank and the IMF. It would also make it easier for the government to negotiate some kind of domestic peace settlement with the Pakistani Taliban.
Then, maybe, Nawaz could finally get the Pakistani economy back on track. It’s a long string of ifs, but nobody else on the Pakistani political scene seems to have a better plan.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.