On June 5, Pakistan's National Assembly elected Nawaz Sharif as the country's prime minister. Though it’s his third time in office, almost fourteen years have passed since Sharif last led Pakistan. There is a legitimate question, then, as to how exactly he will govern.
Pakistan has changed in many ways since 1999, when Sharif was overthrown by General Pervez Musharraf. New players have joined the power elite alongside the politicians and military brass. An activist judiciary brought down a once-powerful army ruler and continues to challenge elected politicians, the bureaucracy, and the military. Private cable news channels, of which there are now around two dozen, team up with the high courts and serve as a check on pretty much everyone, feeding what has become a public addiction to political infotainment and a strong desire for accountability.
Alongside political battles, there are multiple hot wars being fought on Pakistani soil. Islamic militants are now the country’s chief security threat. The Pakistani Taliban has killed thousands of Pakistanis, including a former prime minister. It holds a veto power over the future of the country’s northwest. And for over a decade, not only have tens of thousands of U.S. troops been stationed in neighboring Afghanistan, but Washington has also seen Pakistan as an undeclared theater of conflict, regularly targeting it with drone strikes and other covert intelligence operations, in addition to providing it with billions of dollars in aid annually.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
For his part, Sharif too has changed since he was unseated from power. The Nawaz Sharif we see today is a kinder, gentler statesman – in marked contrast to his confrontational style two decades ago. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), provided a measured opposition to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government that had ruled for the past five years. The PML-N cooperated with the PPP to pass three major constitutional amendments – just a few of many indicators of the elite political culture's shift toward greater cooperation and restraint.
Indeed, Sharif represents a new brand of center-right politics in Pakistan, one that is outspoken against military interference in politics, strongly in support of constitutionalism and the rule of law, and keen on using conciliation and compromise to resolve internal disputes.
This time around, the Nawaz Sharif ver. 3.0 appears intent on reducing corruption, enhancing economic growth, putting the military back in the barracks, achieving "zero problems" with neighboring Afghanistan and India, institutionalizing civilian rule, and resolving the country's major ethnic secessionist dispute in Balochistan.
In these respects, Sharif's "REPAIR" agenda echoes the priorities of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan upon taking office. And while such an analogy might be unflattering at the moment given Erdogan's use of force against Taksim Square protesters this month, Sharif's past is similar to Erdogan's present excesses. Buoyed by a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly after the 1997 elections, Sharif clashed with the courts, cracked down on the media, tried to enhance his constitutional powers, and was heavily inclined toward majoritarian and even quasi-Islamist policies.
Fortunately for Pakistan, it's unlikely that Sharif will revert to old form. He is well aware that Pakistan is far too fractured and its challenges too grave for him to go on an authoritarian binge once again. What Sharif does have is a strong electoral mandate, support from the business community, and space given to him by the military to push forward much – but not all – of his REPAIR agenda.
To succeed, Sharif must prioritize among his goals and implement them in the right sequence. Institutionalizing civilian control over national security policymaking should take precedence over exposing or punishing the military for its unlawful activities in the past. The two could be mutually exclusive if Sharif takes the military head on and fails.