What to Expect from Nawaz Sharif

Pakistan's new prime minister won't fix the economy and is constrained on foreign policy.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the man ousted by Pervez Musharraf in the 1999 army coup, has won a decisive victory in the Pakistani parliamentary elections. His victory itself came as no surprise, but the margin was much greater than anticipated, putting his PML-N party within shouting distance of an absolute majority. The other major story to come out of the elections was the emergence of the PTI party of former cricket hero Imran Khan onto the national stage. Imran, who campaigned against the traditional patronage politics practiced by Nawaz and the defeated PPP party of president Asif Zardari, came a close third in the national-assembly voting and emerged as the leading party in troubled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which has been the scene of relentless terrorist violence perpetrated by Pakistani Taliban forces operating from their strongholds in the neighboring tribal areas.

As a two-time former prime minister, Nawaz has a track record. Domestically, he cut an authoritarian figure, particularly during his second term, when he attempted to crack down on press freedom, sent goons in to sack supreme-court headquarters, conjured up an anticorruption bureau to target the political opposition, and even fancied declaring himself to be the Amir ul Momineen—a title, meaning commander of the faithful, traditionally associated with the first four Islamic caliphs. His self-aggrandizing behavior ended up alienating many senior members of his own party and ran him afoul of the powerful army, who removed him when he tried to fire a second army chief within the space of a single calendar year.

Like his great rival, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz proved to be an abject failure at managing the economic affairs of state. Pakistani politicians are so narrowly focused on the dispensing and consumption of patronage that they have little interest in dealing with the myriad systemic problems that plague their country. This lack of interest in the long-term welfare of their country is reflected, for example, in the fact that hardly any of them pay income taxes. The situation is so bad that, despite the fact that Pakistan spends hardly any money on public education or health, and possesses no social safety net to speak of, it is still deeply and chronically in debt. During his first two terms in office, Nawaz demonstrated a particular fondness for populist initiatives, such as the Yellow Taxi scheme, which made low cost start-up loans available to people who had no prospect of ever paying them back. He also favored expensive vanity projects such as the heavily underutilized Islamabad to Lahore motorway, the Pakistani equivalent of the bridge to nowhere. There is no reason to believe that any of this is going to change during his third visit to the patronage feeding trough.

It would be bad enough if Pakistan were simply condemned to continue its long and seeming interminable journey toward becoming an economically and demographically failed state. But Pakistan also plays host to a witches’ brew of radical Islamic groups, some of whom it continues to support, while engaged in a protracted, inconclusive struggle with others, most notably the Pakistani Taliban.

It is also, ominously, a nuclear-armed state. What happens there clearly matters. During his previous two terms as prime minister, Nawaz proved to be considerably more responsive to Western political pressure than he was to domestic political opposition. U.S. pressure persuaded him to back down during the Kargil crisis in the spring and summer of 1999, when Pakistan army troops occupied high-altitude Indian border posts in Kashmir that had been temporarily abandoned during the previous winter. He also did a good Hamlet impression in May of the previous year in reacting to U.S. blandishments not to match the series of nuclear tests that had just been carried out by India. Although the demands of national pride eventually compelled him to authorize the tests, he was clearly uncomfortable in the face of U.S. pressure.

The one foreign-policy initiative Nawaz was most noted for was his outreach to India. Just eight months after carrying out the nuclear tests he invited Indian prime minister Atal Vajpayee to Lahore for a summit meeting. This was arguably the most significant olive branch extended to Pakistan's historic foe since the two neighbors fell out over Kashmir in the immediate aftermath of independence. Indeed, the most important outcome of the meeting was an agreement to begin secret backchannel negotiations aimed at resolving the Kashmir dispute. Unfortunately, this initiative and the optimism generated by Lahore were blown out of the water by the Kargil crisis, which erupted just a few months later. This, in turn, provoked a very public shouting match between Nawaz and his army chief, Pervez Musharraf, over who was responsible for the debacle, ultimately resulting in the coup that brought Musharraf to power.

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