Features | Politics | South Asia

Phoenix Rising: Will Nawaz Sharif Lead Pakistan… Again?

At the time of his overthrow in 1999, Sharif was probably the most hated man in Pakistan. He may soon be Prime Minister.

By Arif Rafiq for

In the spring of 2000, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif stood in a jail cell in Pakistan's notorious Attock Fort as members of the local and international press looked on. Imprisoned by the army chief he appointed, Sharif appeared utterly demoralized and even pitiful. It was a radical reversal of fortune for a man who just two years earlier had not only been prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan — but a democratically-elected leader with a commanding parliamentary majority who took on the military and conducted the country’s first open nuclear tests.

United States economic sanctions automatically triggered by the tests would spoil the party for Sharif. And relations with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whom Sharif appointed as army chief, would quickly deteriorate as the army waged what Sharif claims was a secret military operation in the Kargil area of Kashmir that would bring Pakistan and India close to a fourth war.

At the time of his overthrow by Musharraf in October 1999, Sharif was probably the most hated man in Pakistan. The country’s economy was in shambles. Sharif had butt heads with many, including the Supreme Court chief justice, often displaying an authoritarian streak. Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was in self-exile and her husband, Pakistan’s current president, Asif Ali Zardari, was in prison. Members of his party would bail on him and join Musharraf’s camp. By the end of 2000, Sharif was in exile in luxurious Saudi Arabia and his political fortunes had crumbled.

Today, Sharif’s stock is again on the rise. Having been back in Pakistan for five years, he is now the favorite to be Pakistan’s next prime minister. This is a testament not only to his political savvy and maturation, but also to public exasperation with the status quo. Many Pakistanis look to Sharif to solve their country’s economic woes and reverse failing governance. But his path to power is far from clear and his return to leadership would in no way guarantee that Pakistan will take a turn for the better.

To rise to power once again, Sharif’s political party, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), will have to contain the upstart Pakistan Tehreek-i Insaf (PTI) party led by former cricket star Imran Khan. PTI, after fifteen years of little political success, is now giving the PML-N a run for its money in its base, urban Punjab. Pakistani political analysts such as Sohail Warraich see the two parties as the main contenders in this area — the country’s most populous belt. So-called electables — candidates with the financial and social capital necessary to win in their respective districts — have been joining (and in some cases rejoining) the PML-N. Ahead of elections, there is a high rate of political defection, and viable candidates tend to side with the strong horse.

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Most public opinion polls put the PML-N at the top nationally and rate Sharif’s personally popularity quite high. But few expect the PML-N, or for that matter any party, to win a majority of National Assembly seats and be able to form a government on their own. Pakistan, like India, is in an era of coalition governments. And so while Khan’s PTI is unlikely to surpass the PML-N in seats won, it could siphon off enough seats to deny the PML-N the ability to form a coalition, even if it attains a plurality. For all its flaws, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which leads the current governing coalition, has managed to stay in power despite a dismal performance record and erratic partnerships. At the moment, the PML-N’s potential coalition alliances appear limited to Islamist parties, such as the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), and might not be enough to put it above the fifty percent mark.

If it comes to power at the federal level, the PML-N could find itself the target of effectively two distinct oppositions: one led by the PPP on the left and the other by the Khan-led PTI on the right. At the same time, it could be dependent on Islamist coalition partners that might pull the party in a more conservative direction, making the international community apprehensive and hindering Pakistan’s campaign against violent extremists.

To avoid besiegement while in power, the PML-N needs to gain as close as to a simple majority as possible. In addition to limiting PTI’s advance in urban Punjab and the Hazara district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the PML-N must try to scrap together seats in areas outside its comfort zone, including rural Sindh. Alliances with ethnic Sindhi nationalists angry with the PPP could help facilitate this, but this would virtually eliminate any chance of the PML-N allying with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), sometimes called the “kingmaker” party in Pakistani politics and one that will probably bring two dozen seats to any potential coalition.

Sharif also faces the challenge of overcoming a volatile history with the army. In his two previous tenures as prime minister he clashed with three army chiefs: one died while in office, another resigned, and the final general launched a successful coup.

Surprising many, Sharif has become Pakistan’s strongest proponent of civilian control over the military and now advocates abandoning Islamabad’s traditional policies toward Afghanistan and India. While in exile, he inked the landmark Charter of Democracy (CoD) with arch-rival Benazir Bhutto. It is a blueprint for political reform in Pakistan and the source of some of the major constitutional amendments passed by the current parliament. The CoD calls for some radical reforms in civil-military relations, including putting the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and military-owned enterprises under civilian control and forming a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the military’s past excesses. Whether Sharif would push forward with these measures or pursue a more gradual approach remains unclear, but Pakistan needs both democratic reform and the bolstering of civil-military coordination.

If it comes to power, the PML-N’s greatest challenge would be to govern a state that is in disarray. Pakistan is cash-strapped, energy deficient, and overwhelmed by growing debt and a young population that needs quality education and jobs. To its credit, the core of the PML-N consists of electable, technocrat-like politicians skilled at developing and implementing policy. While the PML-N, like the PPP, has its fair share of involvement in corruption, the party seems to recognize the immediate challenges of expanding the state’s income tax base, restructuring and privatizing state-owned enterprises, and creating a more sensible regulatory environment.

The PML-N also appears to be serious about tackling Pakistan’s rotting public education system. For example, in the Punjab province, where the PML-N has governed since 2008, the PML-N has created a network of private-quality public schools for the province’s poorest children. If it comes to power nationally, the party has said it will declare a National Education Emergency in order to initiate reforms aimed at eradicating illiteracy and transforming Pakistan’s education system by 2025.

Where the PML-N appears to fall short is in its resolve to combat the religious militancy that strikes Pakistan’s men, women, and children virtually every day. Sharif has criticized the military’s patronage of jihadist groups, including militant groups that operate in Afghanistan and India. But at the same time, his party — seemingly more than other mainstream political parties — has made electoral partnerships with the Ahl-e Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ) organization, which is tied to the broader jihadist networks that include the murderous Lashkar-e Jhangvi and Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan.

Judgments of Sharif and the PML-N should not be based on a single variable. Sharif and his party are complex and have evolved significantly over the years. One could make the case that in respect to the ASWJ, the party is held hostage by on-the-ground realities shaped by the military. But the bloodshed inflicted upon Pakistanis over the past six years is testament to the fact that radicalism directly or indirectly abetted by state eats away at Pakistan’s core. And it will continue to do so, even if the trains run on time.

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Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at: @arifcrafiq.