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Third chance for Nawaz Sharif

May 15, 2013

HERE comes part two of Pervez Musharraf’s nightmare. In his heyday as Pakistan’s military ruler, he had vowed that his two civilian predecessors, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, would never again sully the corridors of power.

Only her tragic assassination forestalled the former’s third stint as prime minister, after Musharraf had been pressured into conceding the possibility of cohabitation, and her widower was able to manoeuvre him out of the presidency and into exile within months of the PPP’s success in the 2008 elections.

Five years later, it is Nawaz Sharif’s turn. Musharraf, meanwhile, remains under house arrest, having returned from exile under the absurd assumption of a homecoming worthy of a would-be national saviour.

He overthrew Sharif in 1999, after the latter sought to oust him as military chief — and tried to prevent a commercial flight conveying Musharraf home from a visit to Sri Lanka from landing.

The coup was a travesty, but it’s easy to forget that back then Sharif’s ouster occasioned considerable relief and even rejoicing. The BBC’s Owen Bennett-Jones remembers, though. In a recent comment, noting that Sharif “has established himself as the most successful politician in Pakistan’s history”, he recalls: “The last time he lived in Prime Minister’s House … his main objective was to see off anyone who challenged his authority.

“Frustrated by opposition in the parliament, he tried to pass a constitutional amendment that would have enabled him to enforce Sharia law…

“When Nawaz Sharif was removed from power in 1999, many Pakistanis expressed great relief, describing him as corrupt, incompetent and power-hungry. By overlooking that history and giving him such a strong mandate in this weekend’s elections, Pakistanis have expressed their confidence that Mr Sharif is now an older and wiser politician.”

Older, yes. Wiser? One would certainly hope so, but that remains to be seen. It may seem unkind to see the new mandate as a consequence of short memories. It’s worth noting, besides, that whereas the PML-N’s thumping majority in 1997 was based on an abysmally low turnout, this time about 60pc of registered voters are believed to have cast their ballots.

In many countries that wouldn’t be considered a particularly enthusiastic level of popular participation, but in Pakistan’s context it is a historic high.

Imran Khan’s campaign on behalf of his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is generally credited with having driven a substantial proportion of the excitement, notably among urban youth, but desperation for change was not restricted to his supporters.

The inefficacy of the PPP-led government — notably on the economic front, and specifically in terms of its proven inability to tackle the energy crisis — inevitably propelled a momentum for change.

Many PTI enthusiasts, including some who ought to have known better, appear to have assumed their party would be the primary beneficiary of popular discontent. That appears to have occurred in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the PTI is expected to be a contender for power, albeit as part of a provincial coalition. It did not, however, transpire in Punjab.

There have been allegations of voter suppression and ballot stuffing — including apparent turnouts of well over 100pc in areas served by more than four dozen polling booths — and one certainly hopes they will be thoroughly investigated, with re-polling ordered in constituencies where such behaviour is suspected of having affected the result.

However, the anecdotal evidence available thus far does not exactly suggest that the PML-N’s landslide in Punjab somehow held back a PTI tsunami.

At the same time, the fact that Sharif’s mandate — a near-absolute majority in the National Assembly, judging by unofficial results — is based overwhelmingly on Punjab complicates his task in terms of national integration.

Hopefully he will be keeping this in mind as he negotiates with independents to set up a stable government. Punjab has historically, and with good cause, been accused of political and economic hegemony. A successful federal government should strive to ensure that impression is not reinforced.

The PPP, embarrassingly decimated elsewhere, is likely to lead the Sindh government.

The political contours in perennially beleaguered Balochistan are more uncertain. Sharif may be relatively well-placed to resolve the issues benighting that province, although it will depend greatly on his relations with the military — which served as his benefactor before it became his nemesis.

Both the PML-N and the PTI have campaigned against the American drone strikes, with plenty of justification. They have also signalled a desire to dissociate Pakistan from the so-called war on terror. It is unclear what this means in practical terms.

The drones, counterproductive as they may be, are after all not the only problem, and both Sharif and Imran Khan have been reticent in criticising brazen acts of violence by the Pakistani Taliban while holding out the possibility of negotiations.

They could be treading a minefield here. A negotiated end to frequent bouts of mindless slaughter would indeed be welcome, but can it be achieved without conceding any of the Taliban’s obscurantist demands — not least their declared aversion to democracy per se? Progress on that front is vital for Pakistan, but the viability of achieving it peaceably remains indeterminate.

Sharif’s conciliatory tone towards India, meanwhile, is a welcome signal and Manmohan Singh’s presence at his inauguration would be symbolically useful. Even on this front, though, ostensibly good intentions have in the past been thwarted by precipitate actions by the military or its proxies.

On these and various other fronts, Sharif has his task cut out. Notwithstanding his record in power, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But he shouldn’t be counting on the likelihood of an extended honeymoon the third time around.