Mr. Nawaz Sharif has been elected to a third term as prime minister of Pakistan. But his party’s victory in Saturday’s parliamentary elections is a victory for democracy in Pakistan, not just the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), which he heads. This election marks the first peaceful transition among civilian governments in Pakistan’s history.
Now Mr. Sharif faces the formidable tasks of constructing a government, and then restoring safety and security to his country and getting its economy back on track.
Mr. Sharif, known as “The Lion,” is a wealthy businessman who twice before served as prime minister. His first term, in the early ’90s, collapsed under allegations of corruption. His second term ended in a military coup by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then head of the armed forces, when Mr. Sharif tried to dismiss the general from his post. Mr. Sharif was then arrested and exiled. Before that ugly turn, he had overseen Pakistan’s entry into the nuclear club, matching India’s decision to explode a nuclear device in 1998.
He returned to Pakistan after seven years in exile, just in time for the 2008 ballot that was won by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), following the assassination of then party leader Benazir Bhutto.
Her widower, Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, presided over what is generally recognized as a corrupt and inept government, leading most observers to anticipate a return to power by Mr. Sharif in last weekend’s vote.
The possible spoiler in that scenario was Mr. Imran Kahn, a world-class cricketer-turned-politician who founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and had captured the imagination (and enthusiasm) of many of the younger generation in Pakistan, which had tired of the competition between the PPP and the PML-N.
Yet, after the ballots were tallied, Mr. Sharif prevailed; the only question was how big his margin would be and whether he would claim a simple majority in the 272 directly elected National Assembly seats. There are 342 seats in total. They include 60 seats reserved for women and 10 seats for members of non-Muslim minorities. As the election results came out, the PML-N led with 124 seats, followed by the PPP with 31 and the PTI with 27. Twenty-eight independents are to join the PML-N. Mr. Sharif insists he now has a simple majority. If he is right, he will take up three crucial tasks when he turns to governing. The first is getting the country’s parlous economy on track. Pakistan’s economy has averaged just 3 percent growth annually since 2008.
That is adequate, but barely. With over 100 million people in a population of 177 million under the age of 25, the economy has to grow faster to produce jobs. With foreign exchange holdings of $5.6 billion, Islamabad will have enough money to fund two months of imports. It is widely anticipated that Pakistan will need to go back to the International Monetary Fund for another bailout to service its existing debt and finance its needs.
First among the next prime minister’s economic priorities is fixing the power grid: Blackouts of 20 hours a day are not unusual in Pakistan, and other infrastructure is equally in need of repair.
One solution is depoliticizing the management of the many state-owned companies that are losing monies and are a locus of corruption. Mr. Sharif’s election manifesto endorsed reform of the energy sector and privatization. During his previous tenure as prime minister, he introduced some liberalization measures, ending state monopolies in airlines, telecommunications and shipping. He must pick up where he left off and accelerate the reform process. Cracking down on the endemic corruption is a necessity.
The second major challenge is creating stability; economic growth will not be possible without it. The Taliban has declared war on democracy in Pakistan. It, along with other extremist Muslim groups in Pakistan, seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate and implement Shariah law. Democratic principles have no role in a country ruled by the word of God.
Fortunately Pakistanis were not cowed: Voter turnout was around 60 percent, the highest level in four decades. Still the Taliban has been winning over more ground in Pakistan, assisted by a government that believed it could buy off or redirect the group toward other targets — foreign militaries in the region, Afghanistan, or India. That has been a losing proposition, and the next government is likely to have to step up operations against the group.
Striking the right balance between domestic and foreign policy priorities is the next prime minister’s third challenge. He must maintain good relations with the United States and be able to use its capabilities to combat internal enemies, without appearing to abandon its sovereign prerogatives. That is not impossible, but U.S. drone strikes against Pakistan targets are extremely controversial. Similarly, Pakistan must consolidate and stabilize relations with India, a nation with which it has fought three wars.
Mr. Sharif has a good history in this regard and there are high expectations in Delhi that he will repeat that performance. It is a lot to ask of any prime minister. The Lion has his work cut out for him.