ISLAMABAD — Two-time former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, is poised to become Pakistan’s head of government for a record third time after his party’s victory in Saturday’s parliamentary elections. But serious economic and security challenges await the new government.
The historic May 11 polls were held to elect the 272-seat National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, and four provincial legislatures. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, or PML-N, claims it won a clear majority at the national level and captured two-thirds of the seats in the country’s most populous province and political power base, Punjab.
There have been allegations of vote rigging and other irregularities in some areas and it will be a few days before election authorities receive results from all constituencies across the country to officially confirm if Sharif’s party is the winner.
But the former prime minister has already received messages of congratulations from countries such as the United States, India and Afghanistan. Sharif has also begun consultations with his party leaders and independent candidates in the parliament on forming a new central government.
Analysts, such as the former chairman of the Pakistani Senate, Waseem Sajjad, say that in addition to dealing with a serious financial crunch, a deepening energy crisis will be a major worry for the new government because it will worsen with the rise in temperature in coming weeks.
“And the people would expect the government to deliver," he said. "They will give them some time but I don’t think the people will give too much time to the new government to resolve these issues.”
Nawaz Sharif comes from a business family, and policies he introduced during his previous terms to boost the national economy won him praise among the business community. His party officials say they are in a hurry to take charge so they can focus on economic challenges. They are also citing this week’s unprecedented surge in the Karachi stock market as evidence of their leadership’s credibility on the economic front.
Sharif's party has been in favor of holding talks with the Pakistani Taliban to bring an end to the problem of militancy in the country that has killed thousands of people. Some are hopeful his policies may bring peace, but others are worried about a possible rise in Islamic radicalism.
Human rights activist Tahira Abdullah recalls the so-called 15th constitutional amendment that Sharif tried to push through the parliament, just before a military coup deposed him in 1999, to introduce Sharia or Islamic law in the country.
“I think he did not last long enough to enact the 15th constitutional amendment, which would have taken us further right towards an Islamist constitution and an Islamist government. So we are going to keep a watchful vigilant watchdog eye on the incoming PML-N-led coalition government,” Abdullah said.
But Mushahid Hussain, who chairs the Senate Committe on Defense, says that despite fears of Taliban attacks nearly 60 percent of the eligible 86 million voters showed up at polling stations to cast their vote. This, he says, sends a strong message to critics at home and abroad that Pakistanis are not in favor of religious extremism.
“I think the biggest messages [from the high turnout] is not terrorism, no to militancy, no to extremism and a resounding yes to the power of the ballot over the bullet," he said. "And I think it shows that the Pakistan society at its core has a deeply democratic ethos, and given half a chance that ethos is practically demonstrated at the polling stations as it was with the resounding turnout, which means that the fear was overcome of the bombs because the ballot was so supreme.”
Analysts say that under Sharif, Pakistan’s relations with neighboring India are likely to improve because of his past initiatives aimed at resolving bilateral disputes through peaceful talks.
But they say that the prevailing controversy over the issue of U.S. drone strikes will be a major stumbling block in fostering better ties between Washington and Islamabad. Former Senate Chairman Sajjad says that the majority of the people are opposed to the drone attacks and Sharif promised his supporters during the election campaign that he will seek an immediate end to this U.S. program.
“They cannot go back on the expectations that they have created [because] there will be a huge backlash in Pakistan," he said. "So I think the Obama administration will in a mature way have to understand the situation in Pakistan and they will have to resolve these issues through dialogue between Pakistan and the United States."
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Sharif said his country has “good relations” with the United States but he called the drone campaign against suspected al-Qaida operatives in Pakistani tribal areas a very serious challenge to national sovereignty.