In Pakistan, Is the Third Time a Charm?

The country's recently-elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has already served twice and is making the case that this time around, things will be different. But will they?
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Nawaz Sharif, chief of the Pakistan Muslim League party, applauds as he responds to his cheering supporters at a rally in the town of Sukkur in Sindh province on January 15, 1997. (Reuters)

Nawaz Sharif is all set to become Pakistan's prime minister for the third time, his party having emerged as the majority party in the historic general elections two weeks ago. Already, he's changing things up.

Where his previous two terms (in 1990 to 1993 and 1997 to 1999, respectively) were defined by confrontations -- with political rivals, with presidents, with the judiciary, the media, and even with the military -- this time, he immediately assumed a conciliatory tone from the very beginning.

There are signs of a New Nawaz -- he has been showing political maturity, unlike the Nawaz Sharif of yore. The question is whether he has really changed.

First, Sharif went to a local hospital to check in on one of his main election rivals --the cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan. The May 11 general election had become a neck-and-neck race between the two men, and they'd exchanged hot words on T.V. shows and at election rallies -- ranging from political allegations to personal attacks. But the moment Sharif emerged as the winner; he went to bury the hatchet, visiting his rival as Khan received treatment for an injury sustained during fall at an election rally.

Shortly thereafter, Sharif doubled down on his new conciliatory style, offering Imran Khan the opportunity to form his own government in the critical Khyber Paktunwha (KP) province, where Sharif could have formed a coalition government with other parties and independent candidates. And then he made similar offers to engage some of the ethnic Baloch and Pashtun nationalist parties in the restive Balochistan Province, where he nominated a Baloch nationalist to be the next chief minister of the province despite his lower number of seats, suggesting he's leading Pakistan on a process of decentralization as well respecting regional mandates of other parties.

The Democracy ReportAnd no sooner had he extended an open hand to his main political rival than Sharif offered one to Pakistan's biggest geopolitical foe. He invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to his oath-taking ceremony and hinted in recent interviews of improving trade ties with India. It was a bolder move even than it looked because the country's powerful military has long been treating India as an imminent threat.

Sharif's moves have so far flouted both tradition and his country's kingmakers. He has hinted that he would not give another extension to the military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who is retiring this fall from his military services. And while Sharif has locked horns with the military before, his past tussles have been petty attempts to pick the army chief of his choice, not principled stances seemingly meant to reassert civilian rule.

Apparently, all these moves are signs of a New Nawaz -- he has been showing political maturity, unlike the Nawaz Sharif of yore. The question is whether he has really changed or are these just acts?

***

If Sharif is indeed a changed man as he enters his third try as prime minister, perhaps it's because he's finally internalized lessons from his previous two terms. Both times, after all, his government was dismissed -- the first time due to confrontation with the former president, and the second time due to confrontation with the military, which led to the military coup in October 1999 when his government was overthrown by General Pervez Musharraf.

Perhaps it's because of his age (Sharif is 63) that as he's grown older, he's mellowed. Or perhaps Pakistan has changed drastically in the last 14 years since he was ousted from power.

Sharif first moved from business (his family owns a steel and sugar conglomerate) into politics in the early 1980s when he was appointed as finance minister during the General Zia ul Haq regime, which accelerated his political rise. Sharif belonged to a generation of politicians groomed by the military regime who could challenge the Bhutto clan, whose popularity had been on the rise since the 1979 hanging of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto's father.

But just as Sharif rose due to patronage from the military, so too did he fall because of animosity with it. In October 1999, he tried to replace General Pervez Musharraf and bring on his own choice of general for army chief. Musharraf responded by staging a coup, deposing Sharif's government, putting him behind bars, and later sending him into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Presented by

 Imtiaz Ali is a journalist from Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and is currently a non-resident fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, D.C. 

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