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The new Sharif era

May 21, 2013

GOOD, bad or ugly, the 2013 elections are over; and now testing times are ahead for the new incumbents. It is the third coming for Nawaz Sharif, a remarkable turn of fortune for a leader who was ousted from power by the military at gunpoint in 1999 and convicted on treason charges.

With the independents jumping on its bandwagon and support from allied parties the PML-N is now close to reaching the coveted two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

It may not be the same ‘heavy mandate’ that Mr Sharif had enjoyed during his second term in office, but it nevertheless gives him enough space and power to take tough decisions urgently needed to bring about the economic and political stability the country needs.

Can Mr Sharif deliver this time what he failed in his controversial previous term in office? Has he gotten over his past ambition of becoming the all-powerful ‘amirul momineen’ and is he now willing to accept the pluralistic reality of the country’s power structure?

The country’s political landscape has changed extensively since Mr Sharif’s last term in office and it remains to be seen whether he has learnt from his past mistakes. It is certainly not going to be smooth sailing for the third-timer.

While its landslide victory in Punjab has catapulted the PML-N back to power in Islamabad after a hiatus of 14 years, the party has failed to gain a strong foothold in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That makes the new government more Punjab-centric with some serious ramifications for the federation.

The 2013 elections have reinforced the regionalisation of politics in the country. Different political parties will be controlling governments in different provinces. While in Sindh it is the return of the old PPP-led coalition government, a brand new face in the form of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf is to lead the administration in the country’s most troubled province of KP.

In Balochistan, the PML-N owes its success largely to the dismally low voter turnout in the Baloch constituencies. In certain areas, candidates getting less than 1,000 votes have been declared elected. Nevertheless, the PML-N with the support of the National Party and Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, which has achieved a stunning victory in the Pakhtun belt, will form the government in the province.

These were the first elections after the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment that granted greater autonomy to the provinces. With most of the power already transferred to the provinces, the hold of the central government may not be that strong any more. The amendment has decentralised economic and political decision-making down to the provincial level. The autonomy to the provinces has transformed Pakistan into a truly federal state and generated a new dynamic that is impacting the course of politics in the country.

The seventh NFC award that followed the Eighteenth Amendment has also resulted in the transfer of greater resources to the provinces. This has left the federal government primarily focusing on the macroeconomic framework and the conduct of fiscal, monetary and trade policies. A critical question is how a Punjab-dominated government will coexist with a new decentralised federal structure.

Despite its emphatic victory in the elections the PML-N has not been able to introduce any fresh blood and the same old faces are expected to form the new cabinet. There is the big question of whether the party is still trapped in the past or willing to move forward in a changed situation. The challenge facing the country needs a leadership with a fresh outlook and vision.

A major challenge for the new government lies in how it will deal with the new geo-strategic reality. The decade-long US war in Afghanistan has spilled over deep inside our territory. The country itself has become a theatre of a war unleashed by the militants and the local Taliban. More than 100,000 army troops are now engaged in a bloody war in the lawless tribal regions.

With the approaching 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan needs to have a coherent national security strategy. Therefore, it is imperative that the civil and military leadership are on the same page. The civilian government needs to take charge of formulating the national security and foreign policies. For that they need to have a proper understanding of the situation as well as the capability to come up with a clear national narrative.

Mr Sharif seems to have rightly assigned top priority to the revival of the economy. But can this be possible without addressing the problem of militancy and violent extremism? What is most troublesome, however, is his ambiguous position on these critical issues.

Going by the PML-N election manifesto and Mr Sharif’s recent statements the twin menace threatening the country’s unity and existence seems to be at the lowest rung of his priorities. Hopefully, Mr Sharif will soon come to terms with the fact that the revival of the economy cannot be possible without effectively combating the militancy that is sweeping the country.

This will also depend on how civil-military relations evolve under Mr Sharif’s stewardship. That has been the biggest problem during his previous two terms. He seems to be still haunted by the memories of being taken away handcuffed by soldiers and incarcerated in a dungeon by the military regime. But the time has come to move on after the people have once again reposed confidence in him.

For the military leadership too it is time for retrospection and building bridges. Gen Kayani’s initiative in visiting Mr Sharif and briefing him on national security issues may help build confidence between the civil and military leaderships. It is imperative to evolve a strong working relationship among all institutions of the state to deal with the grave challenges faced by the country.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com Twitter: @hidhussain