In what “appears to have been the freest and fairest election in Pakistan since the country’s first democratic national election in 1970,” two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have pushed out the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) with a broad and decisive victory:
For the first time since Nawaz Sharif’s ouster in a 1999 military coup, civilian power in the Pakistani political system will be re-centering in the office of the prime minister rather than a powerful president. This represents a shift from the past five years, which had seen a general diffusion of power within the country. The PPP tenure was marked by significant compromises on power-sharing with the opposition and between the central and provincial governments.
Ahmed Rashid sees room for cautious optimism that “a civilian government might at last be equipped to tackle some of [Pakistan’s] challenges”:
Above all, many Pakistanis want Sharif to concentrate on the economy, to improve the energy supply and create jobs. The economy is teetering on the edge, as the country is close to defaulting on its foreign loans. At the moment, it has state-held foreign reserves of about US $6 billion, or about six weeks worth of imports. In many parts of the country, there is no electricity for up to sixteen hours a day and diminishing gas supplies, which has led to industry shut-downs and soaring unemployment among young people.
Like most Pakistani parties in recent years, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League has voiced anger at Washington, in particular over the use of drone missiles. Now that the PML is in power, Sharif will have to deal with the Americans more adroitly, particularly if he wants their support to gain the huge loans from the IMF and the World Bank that Pakistan desperately needs. If the army and the new government are able to seize this opportunity, Pakistan could finally begin to emerge from the chaos, lawlessness, and terrorism that has gripped the country for much of the past decade.
Walter Russell Mead remains pessimistic:
Not so long ago Nawaz Sharif wasn’t much more than a corrupt thief, like many of his colleagues in the Pakistani civilian political elite. He and his party have visible links to some very nasty groups of sectarian militants, especially in the Punjab, a PML-N stronghold. Pakistan’s deep state, where the real power lies, doesn’t seem likely to let Sharif do more with his time in office than take the blame for the government’s inevitable failures and economic setbacks. …
Pakistan is on the brink of a new era but only in the sense that one group of corrupt politicians have been dumped out of office in exchange for another group of equally corrupt civilians. The country still faces the same problems it faced five years ago and will likely face five years from today.
One challenge for Sharif gets personal:
[His] longtime tormentor, Musharraf, is under arrest in Pakistan after returning from his own exile to run in the elections. Musharraf was ousted by popular pressure in 2008, became a billionaire in exile in London, and then foolishly decided he was Pakistan’s savior this winter and decided to go home to be swept back into power by the people. He miscalculated badly. No one in Pakistan wanted the self-appointed savior, and he is now under house arrest. He faces a number of charges and could be tried for the coup he orchestrated against Sharif. The irony is rich.
But Sharif faces a real challenge over what to do with Musharraf. The general has few supporters even in the Army, but the officer corps will be very uncomfortable with the prospect of one of its own serving prison time, or worse. Since many of the senior commanders in the Army today, including chief of Army staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, are former Musharraf protégés who rose with him to power, the question of what to do with Musharraf now is a dangerous challenge.
(Photo: Pakistan’s incoming prime minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to journalists at his farm house in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore on May 13, 2013. Sharif said that he would be “very happy” to invite India’s Manmohan Singh to his swearing-in ceremony. Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan have fought three wars, two of them over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. By Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)