Can Sharif Bring the Guns Down and the Lights on in Pakistan?

May 31, 2013 Updated: May 31, 2013

Zahra Shahid Hussain, the vice-president for Pakistan’s progressive Movement for Justice party, was shot dead on the morning of May 18 outside her house in Karachi. She is the latest victim in a series of political assassinations, kidnappings, and terrorist attacks, which have rocked Pakistani elections. For the first time in history, a legitimate Pakistani government is to transfer power to a legitimate successor. Cheers have frequently turned to cries as the Pakistani people pay a staggering price for democracy. The election campaign was racked with intimidation tactics and civilian casualties. Political rallies were a rare event, as a result of terror threats from the Taliban and violence between parties—extending a far as raids by death squads in the troubled province of Baluchistan. Hussain is one of several politicians to have been assassinated on the streets of neighboring Sindh, and even the chairman of the incumbent Pakistan Peoples Party refused to meet voters out of fear for his life. 

It is to the credit of the Pakistani people that they have stood firm in the face of this violence. Disdaining the anti-democratic preaching of local Islamic fundamentalists, they turned out in droves on May 11 to vote in Nawaz Sharif as their new prime minister. A centrist businessman ousted from office in 1999 by the military, Sharif is back with a mandate strengthened by both a clear lead over his rivals and a record turnout at the polls. But can Sharif prove worthy of his voters’ courage and fulfill his promises of peace and prosperity for Pakistan?

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is developing rapidly, but in the eyes of its citizens, this development is either insufficient or misguided. Although its courts and press have started to show some confidence over the past decade, and its markets have opened up a little more to the outside world, one of the driving forces that guided many voters to the ballots was resentment. Those with ambitions for greater prosperity are impatient for more progress, and dismayed at the recent decline in living standards. And as an increasing source of tension, some are concerned about what they see as Western corruption of their Islamic heritage. Voters are united only in perceiving their incumbent political class as untrustworthy and incompetent. 

Incompetence is certainly a major factor in the electricity outages and unemployment that have been crippling the economy for years. The International Monetary Fund recently described Pakistan as suffering from deep-seated structural problems and weak macroeconomic policies. The government ran a deficit of 8.5 percent last year, which is showing no signs of receding. By the end of this year, foreign reserves will have fallen to half their 2011 level. As an industry magnate, Sharif is well placed to understand these concerns (indeed Pakistani stocks rose just on the news of his election). But his lackluster record in running the economy during his previous two terms in office cast a less favorable light on his abilities, and economic strains are now aggravated by the global financial crisis. Investor confidence has also been eroded by the widespread violence and insecurity. Businesses are reluctant to put money into a country where even the lives of their representatives are at risk.

But the geopolitical context is also to blame. Since the Western invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan has become a haven and hotbed for jihadists in the region. Extremist groups that were nurtured by the Pakistani army to serve as proxy fighters are now following agendas of their own. The Brookings Institution in Washington estimates that, over the past decade, some 45,000 civilians lost their lives at the hands of these terrorists—a death toll recently added to in the runup to the Saturday elections. The country is regularly the scene of sectarian riots and ranks second in a UNESCO list of countries most dangerous for journalists. 

Sharif has so far taken a soft stance on fundamentalist groups, including the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, the group that carried out the Mumbai massacre in 2008. His conciliatory approach may have helped contain violence during his electoral campaign in Punjab, but it risks falling short of making Pakistan a safer country—and a safer environment for business in the long term. Efforts at fundamental reform will depend largely on his ability to reconcile or confront dissident extremists. The prospects for negotiations are unpromising, given the limited scope for compromise. The Taliban have violently made clear their position on liberal reforms over the past few months. On the other hand, confrontation entails a serious risk, since it necessarily involves the military—a force that Sharif fell out with in the past, to his own cost. 

The army has kept an unsettling watch over Pakistan since the country’s birth. Although many civilians see it as one of their rare functioning institutions, its influence over the country has proven devastatingly undemocratic. In addition to repeatedly ousting elected governments (and on occasions executing political leaders), it has independently launched military operations both within and beyond the national borders. It also runs a dubiously legal network of businesses across the country and remains largely beyond the reach of law. Until the conviction last month of General Musharraf—the organizer of the coup that deposed Sharif in 1999—the army has traditionally flouted the judiciary with utter impunity. It remains to be seen whether the Musharraf verdict signals a real change in this pattern. Left unchallenged, the army is likely to continue its autocratic behavior. It commonly detains dissidents without trial and has used brutal force to crush separatist movements in Baluchistan and Sindh. Amnesty International has decried abductions and torture by the Pakistani secret service in tribal areas, episodes often followed by the dumping of mutilated bodies on the roadside. 

Sharif has no alternative to addressing the extremist factions terrorizing his country. But if he does so by partnering with the military, he will need to steer carefully. Outstepping his authority with the generals could earn him a return ticket to finish his exile in Saudi Arabia. Weakness on his part would allow the army to continue making a mockery of the peace needed to bring Pakistan out of poverty. The army is resistant to challenges to its leadership, and intends to keep a firm grip on foreign policy and security matters for the foreseeable future. To date, its reins have remained beyond the grasp of politicians. Pakistan will never be a true democracy, and Sharif cannot fulfill his election promises, without a new deal between government and the military.

Rifts between government and the military will also define Pakistan’s place on the world stage—notably through its dealings with India. Relations between the two countries have been strained since they achieved independence, largely because of territorial disputes over the province of Kashmir. However, unlike his generals, Sharif refers to his neighbor more as a potential trading partner than as a potential nuclear threat. As the election results came in, he crossed the border and invited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to his inauguration. His enthusiasm for bilateral ties with India is a welcome change, but Sharif faces thorny practicalities in materializing them. Not only must he convince the army (which foiled his last attempts at Indo-Pak rapprochement by starting a border war), he may also encounter obstacles from his electorate, many of whom recall the decades spent fighting their archrival. He has so far remained tolerant of anti-Indian terrorist groups, including Jaish e Mohammed, which carried out the 2001 bombing of the Parliament in New Delhi. A change in stance geared to cooling tensions abroad carries the risk of firing up anger at home. 

Another careful balancing act will be required to mend relations with Washington. In spite of billions of American dollars spent on military and economic aid, the two countries have remained on opposite sides of the war in Afghanistan—and notably withheld information from each other prior to the 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden in the vicinity of Islamabad. Pakistanis are deeply angry about drone missions over their territory, and America wants further access through Pakistan as it pulls its troops out of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s foreign policy results from a complex interplay among the will of its people, its generals, and its partners. Sharif will have to juggle these as he edges his way toward the long-term interests of his country.

The prospects of a stable democracy in Pakistan will ultimately depend on the stability of its economy. Sharif, a billionaire known for building one of the country’s first motorways, swayed voters with promises of bullet trains and airports. But unlocking this potential will require skillful navigation. Closer trade ties with India could antagonize the military. Security crackdowns risk satisfying some local interest groups at the price of driving others toward extremism. Like Pakistan’s labyrinthine electricity grid, the political landscape faced by Sharif is complex and plagued with faults that have brought the whole system down countless times in the past. Although the Pakistani people last Saturday successfully snatched an election from the hands of generals and terrorists, democratic power remains fragile and in the custody of man with an imperfect record at holding on to it. Their country remains a military state racked by sectarian violence and poverty. 

Against this difficult background and the seemingly endless bloodshed, there may still be cause for cautious optimism. Sharif has adopted a commendable conciliatory tone toward his political rivals, Indian neighbors, and those who forced him into exile. The army has remained mercifully silent throughout the elections. And the Pakistani people have demonstrated outstanding resilience and enthusiasm for their growing political authority. As demonstrated by Hussain’s tragic death, stability remains an elusive goal. But her compatriots have earned a unique opportunity to redeem the past. The world has much to gain if a new consensus and a new sense of unity can bring this “pure land” out of the shadows.

Mariyam Imad is the editor-in-chief of Maldives Affairs in Male, Maldives.