If he plays it right, Nawaz Sharif could become the most significant leader of Pakistan since… Jinnah.
[dropcap]N[/dropcap]awaz Sharif stepped out on the floodlit balcony of his party secretariat in Lahore shortly before midnight on May 11 and declared victory. “Campaigning across Pakistan showed me how much you love Nawaz Sharif,” he said. “I love you twice as much.”
Sharif hit all the right notes, balancing validation with humility. He vowed to fulfill every campaign promise, thanked God for giving him an unprecedented third shot at governing the country—“We must all bow our heads in thanks to Allah”—and asked his supporters to raise their hands to heaven. “Please pray that by morning we’re in a position we don’t need the crutch of coalition partners,” he said. “Please pray our party gains an absolute majority.”
The prayers took. After more results came in and political freelancers who won their races for the national and provincial assemblies flocked to Sharif’s side, his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) was well placed to form the federal government on its own strength.
Today’s Sharif appears a far different man from when he was last prime minister, some 14 years ago. With all that he has going in his favor Nawaz Sharif will be the most powerful prime minister since, well, Nawaz Sharif. The comparison may be politically blasphemous, but if he can reestablish and rebirth Pakistan—a ruin of a country according to his and Imran Khan’s campaign rhetoric—Sharif could become the most significant leader to shepherd Pakistan since the country’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
After the previous elections, Sharif’s PMLN was dismissed as a Punjab-only party. Now, it has elected representatives in all four provinces. He has an aging but disciplined team that knows how to move mountains. Talk show hosts and newspaper editorial boards have renewed their vows of support to him. Empowered and haloed by his party’s threatened march on Islamabad in 2009, the judiciary will likely keep out of his government’s way, a privilege the previous administration did not have.
Doer Sharif is viewed favorably by 66 percent of Pakistanis, according to a Pew survey from March. (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Khan was viewed favorably by 60 percent, the Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani by 45 percent, and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry by 43.) Results of the May 11 elections attest that Sharif has won new adherents, including young and left-leaning voters. The Taliban are willing to listen to him. Petro-rich Muslim countries want to deal with him. Pakistan’s business community is bullish about the reinvigorated Sharif. And, like Jinnah, Sharif is not a religious zealot, but he has the eloquence and canniness to swaddle even the most hard-sell initiatives in palliative Islamic packaging to give them a sense of divine purpose. His articulation, institutionalized by the party’s formidable messaging machine, can quell the kneejerk concerns of the toughest of cynics.
Having come to tolerance and patience the long way, Sharif counsels the same to others. Since winning the elections he has refused to give timeframes for ending power outages or terrorism, and he deftly turns around questions to make interviewers feel important while simultaneously not having to commit to answers that can be set to Indian music in a loop of electronic embarrassment. This go in government is Sharif’s swan song. He will be 68, and his closest aides in their mid- to late-60s, by the time the next elections are held. No federal government has ever served a successive term. If the PMLN wants to make history by getting reelected in 2018, its hotheaded, younger leaders must learn to keep their low blood sugar up and reinvent themselves, as their leader seemingly has.
The PMLN will have to curb its over-responsiveness to the media and push forward, more persistently, structured reason and logic.
Sharif’s cabinet members must shake off their opposition frame of mind. Accused of initially being soft on the Asif Ali Zardari-led government, PMLN’s gray-haired mandarins were goaded into unseemly, shrill hysteria by bored television anchors. The squabbling was good for ratings, and self-publicity; and it chipped away at the previous administration’s credibility. But it has also made governance impossible. Sharif’s party will also suffer a strident opposition, from Khan’s PTI if not the Pakistan Peoples Party. Making things happen in such a frayed political environment, wrought in no small part by the PMLN, will be Sharif’s immediate challenge. Anticipating the toxicity in Islamabad, he has said he will move on key issues—the economy, law and order—only with consensus. The PMLN will have to curb its over-responsiveness to the media and push forward, more persistently, structured reason and logic. The party will have to be less Abid Sher Ali and more Pervaiz Rashid.
Across the Bother
The PPP-led government may have been inept from paralysis—it was kept preoccupied by firefighting—but it tolerated criticism with extraordinary patience. Such tolerance is not a sign of weakness, as Sharif appears to acknowledge. “If anyone has abused me or Shahbaz Sharif or our party, we forgive them,” he said after the polls. “For the sake of the country, we will forgive and forget all the harsh words said on the campaign trail.” It was good of Sharif to visit Imran Khan on May 14, and of Khan to see him. “We have decided that despite the severe differences that we have, we will work together to resolve major national problems including terrorism,” the PTI chief said after the meeting. “Elections are over and we all, as a nation, want to move forward.” Outside the hospital, Sharif told reporters he had “good discussions” with Khan. “There is a [saying of Islam’s Prophet] that says you should not be angry for more than three days,” he said.
Sharif has forgiven most but, evidently, not all of the politicians who supported Pervez Musharraf, the man who ousted his last government. In recent discussions with Newsweek, Sharif was clear he would not seek any retribution or hound his actual or imagined rivals—as happened in the past. But as prime minister, would he not be under obligation to address the furor over the PPP’s alleged misdeeds? “Some sort of mechanism would have to be worked out,” he said, agreeing that accountability has been a byword for political victimization in gossip-as-gospel Pakistan. Sharif wants Parliament to pass new legislation and appoint an accountability chief with a solid spine and legal background with “a two third or three fourth majority” vote “to make sure the appointment is correct and very transparent.”
To eradicate crippling, pauperizing power outages “on a war footing,” instill confidence in the highly-sensitive business community, and fund his development projects that he believes will wean away the misguided from the pay and thrall of terrorists, Sharif needs money. Going to the IMF is the immediate requirement. In the long-term, businessman Sharif knows he has to establish an enduring, business-friendly framework. To do this, he must first establish his government as the final authority on all economic and business matters. The wisdom and energies of the higher judiciary are best spent on its rising backlog of cases than on indicting government initiatives through suo moto notices.
Of late, contracts between international (and domestic) investors and Pakistan have been rendered meaningless. The sanctity of contracts is the foundation for economic growth. It is not good that Tethyan Copper Company Pakistan, a joint venture between Canada’s Barrick Gold and Chile’s Antofagasta, which invested $220 million of an estimated $3.3 billion since 2006 in Balochistan’s Reko Diq, has been forced to abandon the country. It is investors like these that the country needs, and Sharif must woo, to help clear circular debt, repower idle or underutilized electricity generation structures, and make good on his ambitions for an economic revival. It is not good that the economic reforms introduced by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz were rolled back thoughtlessly, withering tax collection and promoting capital flight. And it is disappointing that only one state company, a small fertilizer plant, has been privatized since the Supreme Court’s 2006 Pakistan Steel Mills judgment.
Pakistanis have a near-genetic tendency to bite the hands that feed them. The last few years have been wasted drumming up class warfare, stigmatizing the economy, and declaring every success story suspect.
Massive infrastructure projects that Sharif has plans for will require a significant measure of foreign capital. Given the recent past, who would invest in Pakistan without the protection of a letter of credit confirmed by an international bank? Besides preserving the sanctity of contracts, Sharif needs to shape a consensus, long-run economic policy, especially for the energy sector, all political parties can sign off on, like in India, to fuel continuous growth.
Business will support Sharif’s reforms if these are evenly applied, with transparency that lends stimulating finality to transactions. Pakistan has governmental and nongovernmental organizations that purport to be economic watchdogs, but all of them lack the intellectual depth, experience, and impartiality to do the job right. Sharif can help here by draining out the alphabet soup of regulatory bodies and creating simpler processes and regulations, demystifying the tax code, passing Chapter 11 legislation, penalizing functionaries whose actions stink of conflict of interest, incentivizing job creation and corporate philanthropy.
The government needs new rules of business for business. Pakistanis have a near-genetic tendency to bite the hands that feed them. The last few years have been wasted drumming up class warfare, stigmatizing the economy, and declaring every success story suspect. Pakistan’s vilified businessmen are right to envy their Indian counterparts, who are celebrated as national heroes. Even once avowedly pro-business newspapers have lapsed into “scandalizing” the economy, viewing any action by the courts based on their jaundiced reports as a mark of honor. Reforming defamation and libel laws, with provisions for heavy punitive damages, would improve the environment for business and, equally importantly, finally force Pakistan’s freewheeling media toward responsibility and real work. Sharif’s information minister should read Britain’s Leveson report on press self-regulation like a ransom note.
On terrorism, the big roadblock to a new and reborn Pakistan, Sharif appears to have been mischaracterized. He’s taken on militants in the past, and he’ll do so again—if his intended truce talks do not pan out. This fight will also require an agile justice system (in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi, people are turning to Taliban courts for dispute resolution) and an economy that allows Sharif fiscal space to undertake his “massive developmental program” in the federally-administered tribal areas “to encourage boys and girls to come to school, to set up good hospitals, allow investment, give locals tax concessions, provide them cheap loans.”
The PMLN’s projects in the Punjab since 2008 illustrate Sharif’s transformational ambitions. The Daanish schools provide lower- and middle-class students with opportunities for social advancement; Lahore’s Metro Bus has civilized commuters by disciplining them into queues and making them punctual; the roads and highways Sharif earlier built connected markets and people, promoting a sense of national integration. Sharif knows he must make good on his latest campaign promises—and rapidly. In Pakistan, love can turn to hate in a heartbeat.
With Jahanzeb Aslam. From our May 31, 2013, issue.