Third time lucky for Sharif?

Owen Bennett-Jones

Inadequate power supplies, civil war with the Taliban and the aftermath of a border skirmish with India are just a few of the items in the in-tray of the former Pakistani leader, who is back at the helm once again

As he starts his third term as Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif has all he could ask for: a solid parliamentary majority, an army hesitant to stage a coup and a country yearning for democratic good governance. And due to a fluke of timing, by the end of this year he should have been able to install a new President, Chief of Army Staff and Chief Justice.

But he also has big problems. The economy is bankrupt and the judicial system fails to deliver convictions. There is a nationalist uprising in Balochistan and an unresolved civil war with the Taliban in the north-west. And, for millions of Pakistanis, the power, education and health systems fail to deliver even a basic service.

Sharif’s record is not encouraging – his last government was concerned above all else with securing his political base. He confronted the judiciary (the Supreme Court was ransacked); the parliament (he came very close to introducing shariah law), and the army – which hit back with General Pervez Musharraf’s coup. He was also widely believed to have been corrupt, building up his companies and failing to repay large bank loans.

So, the question for millions of Pakistanis is: has he changed?

Those close to him, not least his now politically active daughter, Maryam, argue that he has. They say the experience of imprisonment and exile has made him more reflective, sober and determined to serve his nation. Such assurances seem slender evidence on which to base much optimism. But there is another, arguably more telling, factor to consider. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, a democratic government has completed its term and handed power to another elected administration.

Unless Sharif is prepared to resort to extreme, and probably violent, measures, he will have to get used to dealing with new power centres, most notably the media and senior judiciary. And, as President Asif Zardari has just discovered, if a Pakistani politician does manage to complete his five-year term, he can expect to face an electorate ready to pass judgement on his government’s performance.

The democratic pressures are likely to make Sharif concentrate on specific policy areas. Above all else, he will need to deal with the issue that dominated the campaign: power cuts. If Sharif can make the electricity system work, he stands a far better chance of re-election and of making his PML-N the natural party of government in Pakistan. He can also be expected to indulge his passion for popular, flashy mega projects. A bullet train from Karachi to Peshawar is one possibility. Issues with less electoral appeal, however important, might well be neglected.

It is all but certain that taxes will continue to be uncollected; the judicial system will still be dysfunctional and, for millions of Pakistanis, the schools will remain hopelessly inadequate.

When it comes to foreign policy, the new government’s challenges are daunting. Sharif campaigned on a platform of opposing drones and pulling out of the US’s war on terror. Given Washington’s power to block a desperately needed IMF package, he is unlikely to follow through on either pledge. Even if Washington tries to make helpful statements about reducing the number of strikes, there can be little doubt that the US will continue with its drone programme. Sharif will have to accept that. But there is one area in which he could be tempted to defy US wishes: talks with the Taliban.

Inevitably, talks would fail. Fourteen previous agreements between the Pakistani state and the Taliban have, for various reasons, collapsed. But even if they don’t end in lasting agreement, the very process of holding talks could serve a purpose. When the Taliban took over the Swat Valley in 2009, there were a series of negotiations between the jihadis and the state. The Pakistani people saw that a peaceful settlement had been attempted by the army – and that it failed due to Taliban intransigence. It was only then that public opinion swung behind the military offensive that eventually forced the Taliban out of the area.

Furthermore, since the US is engaged in talks with the Afghan Taliban just across the border, it would seem difficult for Washington to oppose negotiations. The Pakistan army might object to talks but it is possible that it too might be persuadable if Sharif can convince it he is playing a longer game. The Taliban, though, is unlikely to be one of Sharif’s top priorities. The conflict in the north-west is of limited interest to voters in Sharif’s political heartland – Punjab. And there are signs he wants to concentrate on something else. As soon as he finished watching his win on the election night TV programmes, Sharif spoke to journalists and repeatedly raised one issue above all others – improving relations with India.

Sharif sees better relations with Delhi as one of the few quick-fix economic tools at his disposal. Cross-border trade could foster a surge of economic activity. There will, however, be obstacles. Sharif will be up against vested interests in Punjab – many of whom are key backers of his party. There are both industrial and agricultural producers who would not welcome greater competition. He will also have to overcome the resistance of those in the establishment who would find it difficult to stomach Indian companies being active in Pakistan. The last time Sharif reached out to the Indians in the late 90s, his efforts were derailed by the Kargil War. The Mumbai attacks played much the same role in undermining Zardari’s attempts to improve relations with Delhi. Another such curveball is a distinct possibility.

There are many in India who distrust Sharif. They argue that his peace overtures as Prime Minister last time round were completely contradicted by the decision to send troops over Kashmir’s line of control to occupy the land around Kargil. Sharif argues that he should not be blamed for Kargil as he had no advance knowledge of the operation because the Pakistan army had failed to brief him. Senior army officers have said they did in fact brief Sharif but that his famously short attention span meant that he failed to understand the importance of what he was being told.

In an attempt to assuage Delhi’s concerns, Sharif recently told an Indian TV channel that he might hold an enquiry into the decision-making surrounding Kargil. As he must be aware, however, any genuine, transparent investigation would antagonise the army to such a degree that it could very well undermine the current efforts of both sides to establish a stable civil-military relationship for the next five years.

Since he last held power, Nawaz Sharif is 14 years older. Millions of Pakistanis are hoping he is wiser too. The ‘new normal’ in Pakistan means politicians are, to a greater extent than ever before, being held to account by judges, journalists and voters. Pakistanis can only hope that, this time, Nawaz Sharif will adjust to these realities and concentrate not on his own wealth and power but on the problems faced by his compatriots.

Owen Bennett-Jones has worked with the BBC World Service for over 20 years and he is the author of Target Britain. He is also a frequent visitor to Pakistan and his modern history of the country, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm is in its third edition

About the author:

Owen Bennett-Jones has worked with the BBC World Service for over 20 years and he is the author of Target Britain. He is also a frequent visitor to Pakistan and his modern history of the country, Pakistan: Eye of the Stormis in its third edition


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International