Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani politician set to become the nation’s next prime minister, is expected to seek good relations with the United States. However, South Asian analysts said Sharif faces daunting challenges from militant groups and a struggling economy.
Nawaz Sharif has been Pakistan’s prime minister twice before. Last time he was toppled in a 1999 military coup, jailed and exiled.
But now, after historic elections, some are calling the 63-year-old the country’s comeback kid.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party scored a resounding victory, marking the first time in the nation’s history that a civilian government will transfer power to another via the ballot box.
Many analysts reacted positively.
“What we have is a government that is willing to shape up in many respects and an international community that is looking for somebody in Pakistan to do that,” said Arif Rafiq of the Middle East Institute.
But the run up to the election was bloody as extremists bombed, kidnapped and killed.
Sharif’s party has been in favor of holding talks with the Pakistani Taliban and some are concerned he will be soft on Islamic extremism.
“Unless we see a zero tolerance policy toward the terrorists, we are going to continue to have tensions between Pakistan and the U.S.," stated Lisa Curtis with the Heritage Foundation. "Particularly over the terrorism issue."
Anti-American sentiments run high in Pakistan, fueled by U.S. drone strikes targeting militants in the country’s rugged border region with Afghanistan.
Such strikes challenge Pakistan’s sovereignty, but analysts, like Curtis, do not expect a public fight with Washington. “He is not likely to come out and demand an end to all drone strikes because he knows Washington is not going to support that and it would really cause a rupture in the relationship,” Curtis said.
Analysts said Sharif’s top priorities will be domestic problems like power outages and painful inflation.
“There is massive unemployment, productivity is low, but at the same time he also faces a big challenge of extremism," Pakistani author and political analyst Imtiaz Gul said. "Religious extremism inside the country."
The U.S. has given billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan’s military and for numerous civilian projects.
According to analysts, that is another important reason for Sharif to maintain a positive relationship with Washington.
“Nawaz Sharif will work closely with the United States when all is said and done," noted Marvin Weinbaum with the Middle East Institute. "He has no choice but to do that.”
Sharif’s influence on foreign policy issues could be tempered by Pakistan’s powerful military, which often plays a dominant role in national security decisions.
Still Nawaz Sharif has made an impressive comeback, and is expected to soon become prime minister for a record third time.