Return of the Lion King

Nawaz Sharif wins Pakistan but can he win the many wars within, ranging from economic to Islamic?

It's 11.30 p.m. on election day, May 11, at PML-N's imposing headquarters in Model Town, Lahore. As hundreds of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supporters gather around to greet their leadership, "Burrhon, kamzoron ka sahara, puri qaum ka ek hee nara... Sher hamara, sher hamara (Champion of the old and weak, the entire nation's slogan: Our lion, our lion)" starts echoing in the background. A beaming Nawaz Sharif comes out on the balcony, as if to greet his loyal subjects. As daughter Maryam and brother Shahbaz nod approvingly, the prime minister-designate of Pakistan sounds suitably humble. "If anyone has abused me, abused Shahbaz Sharif, abused our party... we forgive them." With its victory, PML-N has silenced the moaners, groaners and doomsayers by sweeping Punjab and even emerging among the top three successful parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan in Pakistan's first-past-the-post system. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan's website, PML-N currently holds 124 National Assembly seats out of the 272 meant for direct election (60 are reserved for women and 10 for religious minorities).

With most independent candidates flocking to PML-N, its tally is expected to increase after official results come in. Nawaz seems to be the best choice for Pakistan right now because he has spent time understanding issues related to infrastructure, economy and governance with his team in the past five years. "There appears to be a consensus in political circles that Nawaz has outgrown his dictatorial roots and matured into a democratic, statesman-like figure," says political analyst Umair Javed. "One hopes that Nawaz and his party can resolve Pakistan's plethora of economic problems and, importantly, build on some of the good work done by the previous government on issues of federalism, cultural expression, women's rights and media freedom."

Hunter becomes hunted

Much-fancied Imran gets a rude shock

As results streamed in on May 11, Lahore's roads were full of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters chanting slogans, but by 10 p.m., voting trends in Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa became clear. PML-N had swept the polls in Punjab. Caravan after caravan of jubilant PML-N supporters filled the streets of Lahore. "Dekho dekho kaun aaya, sher aaya sher aaya (Look who's here, the lion is here)" reverberated across every nook and cranny of Punjab.

Taking a dig at Imran Khan's "Sher ka shikaari (Lion hunter)" slogan, young PML-N supporters played the Bollywood song 'Jawani Jaaneman', with the lyrics "Shikari khud yahaan shikaar ho gaya, yeh kya sitam hua, yeh kya zulam hua, yeh kya ghazab hua, yeh kaise kab huva... Na jaanoon mai, na jaane woh... Aaha (The hunter himself has been hunted. Why this atrocity, why this oppression, why this surprising turn of events, how and when did this happen? I don't know, nor does he... )!" PTI supporters were left baffled by the turn of events.

All hopes of a phainta (beating) to electoral opponents promised by Khan's bat vanished. Nawaz's biggest challenge is the country's economic revival. After the election results, Standard and Poor's (S&P) Ratings Services has shown relative confidence in Pakistan's economic situation by declaring that the country is set for the longer-term stability of a 'B-' sovereign credit rating. Pakistan's stocks skyrocketed to new highs. Nawaz has not just been business-friendly but has also worked with multinational donor agencies. He has hinted he will get the International Monetary Fund on board to address the fiscal crunch because Pakistan's balance of payments is already under stress. The question is whether he will take tough and unpopular decisions to raise the tax-GDP ratio by adopting the reformed general sales tax proposed by the previous regime.

On the energy front, the biggest challenge will be the 870 billion Pakistani rupees of circular debt and the huge shortfall in utilising the installed capacity. In this backdrop, Nawaz's younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, famous for his management skills, was tipped to be the minister for water and power but the plan has been altered. Shahbaz will most likely become chief minister of Punjab for another term. Power outages will indeed remain a headache for the next government but Nawaz hopes to get a deferred oil pay-ment facility from the Saudis. It remains to be seen whether he will continue with the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project opposed by the US and Saudi Arabia.

The Terror Threat

Peace overtures won't woo the Taliban

Pakistan's economic stability is directly linked to the law and order situation. With the threat of terrorism looming large, investors are wary of the country. While Nawaz has firmly stated that Pakistani territory will not be used against any country, it all depends on his ability to rein in certain non-state actors. While he rejects the idea of backing any proxy war in Afghanistan in pursuit of strategic depth, he seems serious about offering an olive branch to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Experience shows that no peace agreement with the Taliban has worked, so Nawaz will have to deal with terrorism firmly at one point or another.

Newsweek Pakistan's Khaled Ahmed says Nawaz does not expect the Taliban to deliver what he really wants-lots of money to strengthen the economy-so he will adjust realistically to the Americans. "The Americans have actually abandoned Pakistan. Nawaz will make efforts to reconnect with them," says Ahmed. At a briefing for foreign media held at his palatial family estate in Raiwind, near Lahore, Nawaz mostly focused on relations with India, the US and an Afghan withdrawal. His relationship with the US will determine the course of history. Ahmed Rashid, best-selling foreign policy author of several books, feels Nawaz will be extremely practical despite the anti-American rhetoric most parties used during the election campaign because it was a popular line to take. "He will facilitate the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and down the road, if he gets a good working relationship with the army, he can even promote a dialogue between the Americans and the Taliban," says Rashid. "The Americans are not going to stop using drones and Pakistan cannot make them stop at will. What Pakistan can do is to have a more engaging discussion about drones, so they share responsibility and intelligence, something that existed at the start of the Musharraf regime. Nawaz would want to work well with the Americans because his main thrust will be on economic revival, for which he will need American help.

India on the Mind

The national consensus favours peace

Policy analyst Mosharraf Zaidi warns Pakistan of getting over-involved in Afghanistan. "The real challenge for Pakistan would be that it doesn't get stuck with the failings of the Afghan process so that the instability in Afghanistan doesn't affect Pakistan," he says. Zaidi thinks Nawaz's policy towards India is brilliant. "A lot of traditional foreign policy analysts and watchers have questioned his wisdom of coming on the front foot but when you know the game is moving towards a draw, you have to shake things up a bit. Pakistan has been doing that consistently during the last two years," says Zaidi. "In fact, Nawaz's desire to have peaceful relations with India is in itself an expression of a national consensus.

Every major political party in Pakistan has a clear view of what the future holds and what the future of South Asia should look like: Trade and free travel in order to expand the opportunities the region affords us. The way forward is not to get stuck on the things that we do not agree on," he says.

Underpinning all these issues is the civilmilitary relationship. According to some analysts, Nawaz is impressed by the Turkish model and wants to emulate it. To challenge the authority of the mighty military establishment, he first needs to deliver on the economic front. In six months, it will be known where his government is heading.

If he cannot successfully deal with all these issues, his government may not last five years. The military has directly kept out of politics in the past five years while keeping its hold on the security policy. Nawaz would like to assert his authority and has already said there would be no more Kargils, no more Mumbais. The army chief in his recent Martyrs' Day address stated the army's official position on terrorism, which provides the basis for an understanding between the army and the next prime minister.

Wresting control of foreign policy from the military may be his desire but many analysts believe Nawaz has learnt from his mistakes and may not take on the military directly. "If the military feels threatened or if he undercuts it by crossing some red lines, the military will not like it. The way forward is for both the civilian and military camps to work together," says Moeed Yusuf, political analyst and senior Pakistan expert at the US Institute of Peace. "The military establishment understands the standoff with India is untenable."

The Punjab Problem

Sectarianism needs to be stamped out

Yusuf feels Nawaz understands that terrorism is a major threat. "PML-N probably feels that if the establishment is not going to take any concrete action against the militants in Punjab, they'd rather stay away from it as it is a hornet's nest which, if they touch it, will come back to bite them. Thus, they've taken a backseat on this issue." It may be recalled that the Sharifs had come down heavily on extremist groups in the 1990s but had to back down after the establishment refused to play ball.

On PML-N's electoral hobnobbing with sectarian outfits such as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a front for banned terrorist organisation Sipahe-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Nawaz had to respond to widespread criticism by supporting anti-SSP candidates in Jhang and bringing in some Shia candidates during the election.

"Overall, my sense is that PML-N is not ideologically aligned to these groups-it's not Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal," says Yusuf. "It is electorally convenient to align with groups like ASWJ but Nawaz realises ultimately it may turn against him. Also, if he has to improve ties with India, he has to deal with Punjabi terrorism. He will not authorise major use of force against them. He might instead put into place some mainstreaming agenda or an incremental process that involves socioeconomic mainstreaming, payoffs, etc," says Yusuf.

Clarity shows Commitment

Nawaz has hit the right notes so far

After the first full round of democratic transition, Pakistan will need more to consolidate the democratic system. Congratulatory messages and phone calls from world leaders have poured in, including from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, US President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah. By visiting Imran Khan in hospital, where he congratulated the PTI chief on his party's electoral success in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and offered to play a friendly cricket match once Khan recovers, Nawaz proved his political acumen.

Imtiaz Alam, secretary general of South Asian Free Media Association, thinks Nawaz will have a very effective defence committee of the cabinet to take charge of security policies. "Given his bitter experience of Kargil, the PMelect is setting the rules for his premiership to assert his authority as a powerful chief executive," says Alam. "He has been received well in the region- more so than any other leader-and has committed more than any other leader not to let Pakistani territory be used against any country. Unfortunately, he will not have a confident interlocutor in New Delhi until after the elections in India."

From foreign policy to domestic issues, Nawaz has made all the right noises so far. He understands that civilian supremacy is a must if democracy is to survive in a country that has had more than three decades of direct military rule. He has been critical of the army meddling in politics but has not taken on the army as an institution.

He understands that confronting the army does not bode well for any civilian government, no matter how powerful. Most likely, he will try and work alongside the army. He has indicated that the real chief executive is the prime minister and the army has to be subservient to him. How that evolves is yet to be seen.

(Originally published in India Today)

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