Harbinger of hope?

Supporters of Nawaz Sharif. Photo by AAP.
15 May 2013
Supporters of Nawaz Sharif. Photo by AAP.

SANDY GORDON asks whether Pakistan’s new government represents a new dawn for democracy, independence and relations with India.

Pakistan has just experienced the first democratic change of government in its history.

It did so despite a violent campaign by religious extremists to derail the election, and targeted at secular-oriented parties such as the ousted Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

However, the victory by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Party (PML-N) is still a genuine win. The 60 per cent voter turnout is excellent for Pakistan, with Pakistanis defying the religious extremists to cast their votes and have their say.

The election results show that voters were clearly fed up with the PPP’s corruption and poor economic management. The country has suffered from serious electricity cuts and an anaemic economy. It is burdened by a rapid population growth rate, fuelled by poor levels of general and especially female literacy. Environmental problems in the heavily irrigation-dependent economy are also growing.

At the time of writing, former cricket star turned politician Imran Khan, had won about 30 seats, which roughly equals the PPP. It is likely Sharif will be able to reach the necessary 137 seats to govern in his own right by attracting independent support. He may nevertheless seek a deal with Khan in order to provide additional stability.

Although the electoral base of the new Sharif government is mostly confined to Punjab, it has the benefit of being far more stable than the wobbly coalition it replaces.

Sharif, who is a self-made billionaire in the steel industry, will be more market oriented than Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. Pakistan will have a less regulated economy and economic growth will likely pick up given a reasonable international environment. However, judging by Sharif’s previous stint in power, don’t look for a marked diminution in corruption or ‘money politics’.

Pakistan’s regional and security relationships are also challenging. Sharif campaigned on the basis of lessening Pakistani dependence on the US. Even though Washington is winding down the US military commitment in Afghanistan, it needs Pakistan to achieve an ordered withdrawal. This is a massive logistical exercise.

It would be greatly complicated should the US be forced to use of the alternative route through the Central Asian Republics and Russia. Washington also needs Pakistan to ensure that a post-NATO Afghanistan is not unduly destabilised from across the Pakistani border.

Sharif may well temper his supposed antagonism to the US. He will likely be encouraged to do so by the Pakistani military. He has no love for the military and was ousted in 1999 by then Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf and sent in to exile. But he will have little choice but to work with them given their importance.

Despite hiccups in the relationship between the US and the Pakistani military, such as the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the two still have an important working relationship, including in the provision of aid. Sharif will no doubt give the impression of distancing Pakistan from the US, but will probably allow himself to be convinced on crucial issues like continuing supply and exit through Karachi.

Even though drone attacks now originate from Afghanistan rather than Pakistan, Sharif may force the US to curb such attacks on Pakistani soil since this is an especially high-profile issue in Pakistan. If the US route through Pakistan is cut, it may be a temporary measure as a way of negotiating a stop to the attacks. .

The really interesting effect of the change of government could be on Pakistan-India relations. Sharif was born in what is now Indian Punjab, and the PML-N is far better regarded by the so-called ‘religious right’ than is the PPP. Should the PML-N emerge as the majority party in its own right, its hand would be further strengthened. These factors could give Sharif a freer hand to deal with India than his predecessor.

Both Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Singh have been encouraging and have already had a long talk by phone. Any major change in the relationship would need to be achieved at the political level and this election could prove a circuit breaker.

But there are also some profound impediments to a major breakthrough. The military needs a continuing level of antagonism against India to maintain its influential role in Pakistani society. Pakistani Islamist jihadist  groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) have been attacking India from across the border for many years. The attacks on Indian Kashmir are clearly sponsored and supported by the Pakistani state, especially the military intelligence, the ISI. Attacks on other parts of India – such as that on Mumbai in 2008 – are also mounted from Pakistani soil.

The leaders of  groups like the LeT seem to function in Pakistan with impunity. India is both threatened and outraged by this situation and it has become, along with the obvious and major issue of Kashmir, a serious impediment in improved relations.

Can Sharif do better at reining in these groups than his predecessor? Will he be willing to do so? Can he work with the military to ease relations with India? These remain important and unanswered questions as we move into the Sharif government.

Dr Alexander (Sandy) Gordon is an India and South Asia expert based at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific's Regulatory Institutions Network.  


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