Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif looked poised Sunday to return to office with a resounding election victory — a mandate that could make it easier to tackle the country’s daunting problems, including growing power outages, weak economic growth and shaky government finances.
Questions remain, however, about Sharif’s stance on another key issue: violent Islamic extremism. Critics have accused his party of being soft on radicals because it hasn’t cracked down on terrorist groups in its stronghold of Punjab province.
That could be a concern for the United States, which has pushed Pakistan for years to take stronger action against a variety of Islamic groups, especially fighters staging cross-border attacks against American troops in Afghanistan.
As unofficial returns rolled in Sunday, a day after the election, state media estimates put Sharif close to the majority in the national assembly needed to govern outright for the next five years. Even if he falls short of that threshold, independent candidates almost certain to swing in Sharif’s favor would give his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party a ruling majority.
That would put the 63-year-old Sharif in a much stronger position than the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party, which ruled for five years with a weak coalition that was often on the verge of collapse.
Pakistan suffers from a growing energy crisis, with some areas experiencing power outages for up to 18 hours a day. That has seriously hurt the economy, pushing growth below 4 percent a year. The country needs a growth rate of twice that to provide jobs for its expanding population of 180 million.
Ballooning energy subsidies and payments to keep failing public enterprises afloat have eaten away at the government’s finances, forcing the country to seek another unpopular bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Pakistan also has an ineffective tax system, depriving the government of funds.
Sharif, the son of a wealthy industrialist, is seen by many as more likely to tackle the country’s economic problems effectively because much of his party’s support comes from businessmen. He is also expected to push for better relations with Pakistan’s archenemy and neighbor India, which could help the economy.
The Pakistan People’s Party was widely perceived to have done little on the economic front.
“Anything better than zero and you have already improved on the PPP’s performance in terms of managing the economy,” said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.
It was a remarkable comeback for the two-time prime minister, who was toppled in a 1999 coup by then-army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf and was sent into exile in Saudi Arabia for years. He returned in 2007, and his party came in second in elections the following year.
Over the last five years, Sharif put steady pressure on the PPP-led government. But because he was wary of army interference, he never applied enough pressure to threaten the government’s hold on power. That attitude helped enable parliament to complete its term and transfer power in democratic elections for the first time since the country was founded in 1947.
In an ironic twist, the man who toppled Sharif in a military coup, Musharraf, is currently under house arrest in the country after returning from self-imposed exile. It will be up to Sharif’s government to decide whether to bring treason charges against Musharraf in the Supreme Court.
Sharif is expected to be somewhat more nationalistic and protective of state sovereignty when it comes to relations with the U.S. than the outgoing government. He defied U.S. opposition to Pakistan’s nuclear test in 1998 and has criticized unpopular American drone attacks targeting terrorists in the country.
But that doesn’t mean the relationship will change radically, especially since the army often plays a dominant role in foreign policy issues.