ISLAMABAD — Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces a rising political storm in his nuclear-capable country, just halfway through his five-year term in office. The significance of Pakistan’s worsening political environment has been noted by the United States, which has campaigned for over a year to get India and Pakistan, the world’s two newest nuclear powers, to accept international nuclear-nonproliferation instruments, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or CTBT.
On Sept. 20, a U.S. official told Pakistan’s political and military actors that it would “strongly oppose” any attempt to overthrow Sharif’s government through unconstitutional means. It was a clear message of concern over recent reports that the country’s powerful military could be prompted by disgruntled politicians to maneuver behind the scenes and overthrow Sharif’s government, now widely considered to be one of the most unpopular regimes in Pakistan’s recent history.
Elected in early 1997 on the back of a landslide electoral victory, Sharif has won few friends among the increasingly united opposition political parties, who demand his immediate resignation followed by fresh elections.
Since the country’s last military ruler was killed in 1988, three governments — including one of Sharif’s, elected before his victory in 1997 — were prematurely dismissed from office, amid charges of corruption.
All were shown the way out by the president at the time, who used his power to dismiss the elected government. Sharif, however, removed those powers when he was first elected. Political analysts say that a valuable “pressure valve” in times of uncertainty has been eliminated
Some fear a military takeover if conditions worsen. During Pakistan’s 52-year history, the country has been ruled by the military for 24 years. The military is still seen as the ultimate arbiter of national affairs during times of crisis.
Sharif’s falling political fortunes are more the consequence of his own style of government. His critics accuse him of concentrating power within Punjab, the province dominated by his family, from which he has recruited top officials to powerful positions in the government. At the same time, the country’s three smaller provinces, Sindh, the North West frontier and Baluchistan, have been ignored.
Pakistan, an ethnically diverse country, has traditionally had strong demands from the country’s smaller ethnic minorities. Many have been suspicious of domination by the Punjab.
Sharif’s government has been further discredited by his decision last November to impose direct federal rule in Sindh, the home province of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Sindh has traditionally been a hotbed of defiance. Sharif further inflamed Sindh when he appointed a widely unpopular politician, Ghaus Ali Shah, as head of the province earlier this year. More recently, the government ordered a brutal crackdown against demonstrators who were protesting Sharif’s government in Sindh.
The deteriorating conditions in Pakistani politics have not been helped by the country’s economic woes. Foreign investment has come to a standstill, growth has fallen sharply and government revenue collection is falling significantly shor of official targets. The country’s target for reduction of the trade deficit in the current financial year (July-June) to $800 million, from $1.6 billion, looks well beyond reach. In the first two months of the financial year, the deficit is just below $400 million, or roughly half the annual target.
For the outside world, the stakes are considerable. If Pakistan faces more political instability, the chances are that it would move the country further away from accepting the global nuclear safeguards that countries such as the U.S. and Japan have tried to pursue in the past year. There are also dangers of domestic turmoil triggering another round of instability with neighboring India, whose own nuclear ambitions raise security concerns outside South Asia.
For Sharif, the answer to Pakistan’s growing political instability lies on the home front, which his critics say he has badly neglected.
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