Third Chance for Nawaz Sharif
By Nayyer Ali, MD
Nawaz Sharif returned to power with a solid win in the Pakistani elections held on May 11. He now has a third term in the Prime Minister’s office, and quite a turnaround from 12 years ago when he faced a death sentence handed down by a court under the Musharraf regime, and escaped the gallows by going into exile in Saudi Arabia. The question is whether he will govern effectively, or is Pakistan caught once again in the cycle of patronage and corruption that resulted in the lost decade of the 1990’s, when the PPP and PML traded power.
Sharif will be able to rule without need of any major coalition partners, as he has nearly 50% of the seats already. But he did not win 50% of the vote. Most countries with parliamentary systems rely on a national vote and then parties win seats based on their share of the total vote. Pakistan has the British system, where seats are assigned by geographical district, and the seat is awarded to whichever candidate wins the most votes in that district, even if that is less than 50%. This works reasonably well in a two-party political system, but when there are multiple parties, one can get lopsided results. The best example was the 1997 Pakistani election, when the PML won 47% of the national vote, but got 75% of the seats in the National Assembly, giving Nawaz Sharif the power to amend the constitution at his own whim. In the current election, Sharif’s party got 35% of the vote, while the PPP and PTI got 17%, but while Sharif bagged 130 seats, the PPP and PTI each ended up with about 30. Multiple other parties divided the rest of the vote.
Nawaz Sharif now takes control of a country in economic chaos that is facing major foreign policy and internal security challenges. The most immediate issues are the ongoing electricity shortages that cripple industry and consumers, and the very slow rate of economic growth over the last five years. The PPP government inherited a situation where Pakistan had grown strongly for seven years, with a rapid rise in living standards and fall in poverty. But for the last five years there has been stagnation in the economy, slow growth, and very high inflation. There has been no meaningful progress on privatization.
Sharif states that his main goal is to create economic prosperity in Pakistan. With good policy that should be achievable. The country is much more sophisticated, urban, and industrial than it was in the 1990’s. Exports doubled in the previous decade. There is a middle class that is buying small autos and motorbikes. If he adopts sound policies, privatizes industry to get it out of the hands of incompetent government managers, and cuts wasteful subsidies, there will be enough room to raise investment in the country in infrastructure and education and health. Right now there is more government money spent propping up loss-making companies like PIA, Pakistan Steel Mills, Pakistan Railways, and others than there is money spent on primary education. That is a criminal state of affairs.
Sharif also needs to undo the monster of Jihadi terror outfits that were created by the politicians and generals. The Pakistani Taliban need to be defeated, and the tremendous violence that has hit minority communities in particular, needs to be ended. Sharif will have to finally put an end to the misguided policy of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is leading Pakistan down a strategic error. The US will not allow the Taliban to seize power, and neither will the non-Pashtun Afghans and the urban Afghans of Kabul who have no desire to be ruled by the Taliban.
Sharif will also have to deal with India. In his last term as Prime Minister, he did conduct back channel secret talks with India about Kashmir. In these talks there was the concept of moving the border and transferring enough of the Vale of Kashmir to satisfy Pakistan and end the dispute. If he could achieve such a deal now that would be a major accomplishment. Even without a deal on Kashmir, he will likely move to open trade more broadly with India.
Sharif was a creation of Zia al-Haq. It is an irony that he was thrust into politics by one general, and deposed by another. He is now 63, and hopefully not just older but also wiser. He has the desire to bring the Pakistani military firmly under civilian control, and end the era of coups forever. But he has come to realize that the only way to achieve that is to deliver results to the people. He has taken note of the Turkish model, where the economic and governance successes of the AKP gave them the clout to finally cut the Turkish military down to size. If he can achieve the same for Pakistan he will have redeemed himself from his past failures.