In Pakistan, Is the Third Time a Charm?

By Imtiaz Ali
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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 Report And 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?

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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.

If Sharif is indeed a changed man, a good place to look for his political chrysalis is his exile years from 2000 to 2007 in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis afforded him a luxurious lifestyle as well as the time and space to reflect on his past, while still maintaining frequent contact with his supporters in Pakistan. Many of his close friends and party leaders had abandoned him and joined the military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, which was surely a defining experience.

If Sharif is not a changed man, then the implications are grave. The country will plunge into political instability. The Taliban would further exploit and expand their writ.

But during his exile, something unexpected happened. He grew close to his former archrival, Benazir Bhutto, another political exile from Pakistan who was living in Dubai. Both victims of military dictatorships, they shared the experience of having tried to come back to Pakistan and participate in politics, only to be obstructed by the Musharraf regime. Together, they went to London to sign a landmark agreement called the Charter of Democracy in May 2006, in which both agreed to struggle against military dictatorship and cooperate in future endeavors for democracy. That was a rare experience in which they learned to forge alliances with those they had once opposed.

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Sharif's third act comes at a critical time in Pakistan's checkered history. The stakes have never been so high for the country and its nearly 190 million people. On one hand, it's facing the rising tide of Taliban militancy, and on the other hand an anemic economy, weak governance in many parts of the country, and a severe energy shortage. All this as the United States is starting to leave Afghanistan and the world watches nervously to see whether Pakistan can play a positive role not only in facilitating the withdrawal (much of the equipment will be shipped out through Pakistan) but also in long-term peace in Afghanistan.

Fortunately, Nawaz seems eager to tackle some of these pressing issues. There is hope that he can steer the country of out of its economic and energy crisis, mainly because of some of his past mega-projects, such as highways and cab schemes.

Unfortunately, he has not yet shown any plan for tackling the Taliban insurgency, except his intention of negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban. He has showed willingness to cooperate with the West in fighting terrorism in a recent interview but did not offer any specific ideas of how he would do so.

Since Pakistan's military has been predominantly ethnically Punjabi, only a powerful Punjabi civilian can try to fix the civil-military imbalance. Since most of the mandate Sharif got is from the Punjab province that makes him all the more a good choice to correct the balance. That would mean he would steer the country's strategic polices towards India, Afghanistan, and United States, and it would also mean ending supporting proxies by the military in order to achieve foreign policy objectives. The Punjab-dominated mandate also puts a huge responsibility on Sharif's shoulders to wisely carry the ethnically diverse federation forward.

How much Sharif will be successful in changing Pakistan's paradigm shift on these strategic issues is a big question.

The prognosis would not be that Sharif will work magic and solve all of Pakistan's problems. There is too much that has gone wrong in the country. The last government of the PPP also proved pathetic on many fronts, such as bad governance, inflation, and energy. The issue is whether he will be honest and determined to set Pakistan on a course that will foster economic growth rather than just perpetuating corruption and strengthening family-dynastic politics.

If Sharif commits himself to some of the positive steps he has taken already and does not waiver, he might be able to generate some hope and fresh momentum in the country, especially in the economy. Beyond that, no matter how sincere and positive he is, it seems unlikely that he could move the country on a sustainable path to better economic and social conditions if the state does not come up with an effective counter-terrorism policy.

If Sharif is not a changed man, then the implications are grave. The country will plunge into political instability. The Taliban would further exploit and expand their writ. Pakistan's suffering will continue and could get worse.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/05/in-pakistan-is-the-third-time-a-charm/276317/