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Nawaz Sharif’s third turn as prime minister could be his luckiest

The Economist

May 17th, 2013

 

 

SPELLING out plans from his gilded home in Raiwind in the province of Punjab on May 13th, Nawaz Sharif allowed smugness to creep in. His main opponent in the general election that had taken place two days earlier, Imran Khan, a former cricketer, should, Mr Sharif said, concede defeat like a “sportsman”. Mr Sharif’s smiling daughter chirped that the results “were way beyond our expectations”.

Mr Sharif’s win was emphatic. His Pakistan Muslim League (N), or PML-N, scooped 124 of 272 seats, 20 above the most optimistic forecast. Add independents who will join, seats allocated for minorities, plus a few to be rerun, and he should be able to rule without a coalition.

Most of his support is from Punjab, home to half of Pakistan’s 180m people. There, his party also romped home to provincial re-election. Voters in Lahore, Punjab’s chief city, and in the villages, made clear why they wanted him. Older Punjabis brush aside Mr Sharif’s earlier corruption, sympathy for Islamist extremists, and run-ins with the army. None of it matters, if only he can fix the economy and get the electricity running again.

Electoral violence was high. Around 40 people died, including 11 killed by a big bomb in Karachi. The deaths came at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban, which abhors elections, and of political parties engaged in thuggish competition for local control. Yet, given fears of something far bloodier, the toll was treated with relief.

Violence aside, it was the cleanest election in years. Thanks to a noisy media, an updated electoral roll removing “ghost” voters and enthusiasm for Mr Khan, voter turnout jumped to around 60% compared with 44% last time, in 2008. Despite a history of military rule, Pakistanis showed themselves fond of democracy. Crucially, the army did not interfere this time.

As for Mr Khan, despite still being on his back in hospital after a nasty fall, he has much to cheer. Set aside the unrealistic expectations of his fervent supporters, who swallowed Mr Khan’s prediction of a “tsunami”. In reality, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) did well considering that it had no previous parliamentary representation. In the wheat fields of rural Punjab, villagers grumbled that the PTI never came by. But in the cities Mr Khan’s big rallies turned support into votes, particularly among the young, educated classes. They admired his charisma and apparent honesty.

A yorker for Imran

Mr Khan won in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (former North-West Frontier Province), so his party gets to run an admittedly tricky place, dominated by the wild city of Peshawar. Nationally, PTI ranked a credible third, with 27 seats, behind the outgoing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Bhutto family vehicle that had been in government since 2008. Most important, however, Mr Khan has helped to reshape politics. His focus on corruption and rotten government, and his call for Pakistanis to aspire to better, helped voters to be more assertive. Punjabis, in particular, showed that they care more about government performance than about such abstract if divisive issues as language, culture and religion. After five dismal years under the PPP, a mood change was sorely needed.

The PPP itself is pretty much leaderless—for his safety, the party’s young heir, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, campaigned largely out of Dubai. Once a national force, the PPP was unable even to talk up its anti-poverty efforts, and it imploded—losing all but two of 44 seats in Punjab (see article). It retains 31 seats in the national parliament, but it has, in effect, been reduced to a rump in its stronghold in Sindh province in the south. Further decline looks more likely than recovery.

All eyes are now on Mr Sharif, the prime minister-in-waiting. The PML-N is likely to be able to govern without patching together a coalition. If so, Mr Sharif’s position will be strong, unlike that of the PPP’s recent prime ministers, preoccupied mainly with clinging to office. (Their boss, the president, Asif Ali Zardari, remains for a few more months, after which the parliament and provincial assemblies will choose his replacement.)

One looming challenge is federalism. The next five years could be dominated by arguments between Punjab and the rival parties which run other provinces. Expect rows over the sharing of limited resources like water, electricity and funds for infrastructure projects.

And then come Pakistan’s activist courts. They could make life difficult for Mr Sharif, for instance, over old corruption cases. Mr Sharif enjoyed close relations with the ambitious chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who took every opportunity to hound Mr Zardari. But Mr Chaudhry retires in December, and other judges are already setting up clashes with the incoming government. Judges in Peshawar have ruled that American drone strikes against militants are illegal. They have ordered the government to ensure they end.

There is also the matter of Mr Sharif’s relations with the army that ousted him in 1999. His nemesis, General Pervez Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan until a dramatic fall from power in 2008, now sits under house arrest in Islamabad, the capital, after foolishly returning from his London exile with a view to contesting the election. An early test for Mr Sharif is whether Mr Musharraf will be tried for treason. Mr Sharif claimed this week that he has no issue with the army—and that Mr Musharraf was a dangerous lone actor when organising the coup against him.

The fiction is laughable, but it signals his wish for cordial relations. People close to Mr Sharif expect him to go along with army plans to fight militants in the tribal badlands bordering Afghanistan, despite campaign talk of opposing “America’s war” there. Mr Sharif hinted as much when, on May 13th, he said he would support “our friends”, the Americans, as they prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan.

The armed forces are probably also willing to go along with some of Mr Sharif’s new priorities. He is keen to improve relations with India, wishing to renew a detente he launched in 1999. He makes encouraging noises on topics that trouble India. Notably, he appears open to investigating the planning, in Pakistan, of terrorist attacks in 2008 in Mumbai that killed 164. Encouragingly, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, made a friendly post-election call to Mr Sharif. An opportunity for sharply improved relations is emerging, though Indian diplomats sound as anxious as ever to miss it.

Better ties with India could help with two other big problems. One is the chronic energy shortage. Some 40% of electricity is generated by costly oil-powered stations. Indebted state power providers are close to collapse, while consumers do not pay their bills. So electricity is often cut for 18 or more hours a day, crippling business.

India is ready to lead a 500MW transmission wire over the border into Punjab. By extending its own pipeline network, it could also help supply natural gas, easing Pakistan’s reliance on oil. Such measures would be a boon for Pakistan’s decrepit economy. So would renewed efforts to unblock obstacles to bilateral trade. Pakistan’s exports to India reached $500m this year—though a record, that is a lamentable level between such big neighbours.

Beyond that, Mr Sharif might dare to think of root-and-branch ways to modernise the economy, as he did in his first, liberalising rule at the start of the 1990s. Then, freeing Pakistan’s economy inspired India’s Mr Singh (finance minister at the time) to do the same next door. Privatising several bloated state-owned firms, or at least running them better, could kick-start the economy.

Indeed, revamping steel and power companies and the national airline could, some who know him say, be on Mr Sharif’s mind. If so, he needs to move fast. A new deal with the IMF is needed in the coming months, as official reserves dwindle and debt repayments loom. Get the economy going again, Mr Sharif says, and all of Pakistan’s other problems can be fixed more easily.

 

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