What to Expect from Nawaz Sharif

May 20, 2013 Topic: ElectionsPolitics Region: Pakistan

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.

Kargil and the Musharraf coup are reminders that when it comes to foreign policy, and particularly Pakistani policy toward India, civilian Pakistani rulers are not independent actors. No civilian Pakistani ruler since the death of Zia has ever been able to pursue a foreign-policy line strongly opposed by the army. Musharraf had objected to the outreach to Vajpayee and boycotted the Lahore summit as a visible symbol of his displeasure. Although he has repeatedly denied it, many observers believe he launched the Kargil operation with the specific intention of undercutting the momentum toward improved relations with India begun at Lahore. Unfortunately for Nawaz, his subsequent attempt to cashier Musharraf in October of 1999, which followed by less than a year his firing of the previous army chief, proved too much a threat to the institutional independence of the army and resulted instead in his own removal from office. This is a history that is unlikely to be forgotten by either the army or Nawaz.

For this reason, the new Pakistani prime minister may feel obliged to tread carefully on foreign-policy issues, particularly in the beginning. During the election campaign he expressed interest in trying to negotiate a deal with the Pakistani Taliban groups fighting against the army in the tribal areas. But he declined to endorse Imran Khan's suggestion that the military start shooting down any U.S. drone aircraft found operating there. Unless the army delivers a firm no, it is possible he could try to negotiate a deal with the Pakistani version of the Taliban. This was tried by both the Musharraf and Zardari governments on several occasions between early 2004, when the Pakistani Taliban first emerged, and the spring of 2009, when the Taliban, having broken all their previous agreements, ended up marching to within 60 miles of Islamabad. This forced the army to move into the tribal areas and parts of neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in strength. It has been chasing the Pakistani Taliban from one tribal area to another ever since.

The biggest wildcard in the above equation is the surprising emergence of the PTI as the largest party in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly. Pashtun voters in the province were attracted by Imran Khan's anti-U.S., antidrone rhetoric as well as his support for pursuing peace with the Pakistani Taliban. If the PTI is able to put together a provincial government, Imran would be well positioned to put pressure on both Nawaz and the army to at least go through the motions of trying to engineer another deal. Nawaz has also echoed Imran in voicing doubts about the wisdom of continuing Pakistani participation in the U.S.-led war on terror. But his track record suggests he is unlikely to do anything that would seriously alienate the United States. And while he may end up making a show of demonstrating interest in improving relations with the Afghan government, he is unlikely to challenge the basic thrust of Pakistani policy in Afghanistan, which includes supporting an Afghan Taliban role in running the country as a counterweight to Indian influence there.

Despite this support of the status quo, the one area in which he might actually be willing to stick his head above the parapet is in relations with New Delhi. As noted above, the one foreign policy initiative Nawaz was most noted for during his most recent term as prime minister was his outreach to India. His possible interest in renewing this effort is reflected in the fact that one of his first actions after learning the PML-N had decisively won the elections was to invite Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh to Pakistan to attend his swearing in. If this is indeed what he has in mind, he will certainly need to tread carefully. A really serious effort would not only risk running him afoul of the army, it would outrage Pakistani religious parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, not to mention the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the largest domestic jihadist group and the only one that has yet to turn against the state, which would look askance at any attempt to fundamentally improve relations on anything less than maximalist Pakistani terms.

Pervez Musharraf felt he was too weak to take these various forces on when his own backchannel negotiator came close to reaching a major deal with India on Kashmir in early 2007. As the most popular politician in politically dominant Punjab province, whose own family can be traced back to Kashmiri roots, Nawaz starts out in a much stronger position, provided he can carry the army with him. Unfortunately, the current army chief, General Kayani, gives every impression of being a hard liner on India. This is where the U.S. could play a potentially useful role by making crystal clear to Kayani and his senior subordinates that we strongly support an energized peace process with India.