Pakistan’s new PM faces host of daunting challenges

Pakistan’s new PM faces host of daunting challenges

LAHORE, Pakistan - “The Tiger Roars Again,” screams one headline acclaiming Nawaz Sharif, but Pakistan’s incoming prime minister faces a host of challenges as he makes a remarkable political comeback after 14 years.

By (AFP)

Published: Sun 12 May 2013, 5:27 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 9:17 AM

From rolling power blackouts to a crumbling economy, from a bloody homegrown insurgency to perennially fractious relations with Afghanistan and fellow noisy nuclear democracy India, the premier-elect’s in-tray is not short of problems.

A key question will be how he handles the military, which remains one of the country’s most powerful institutions even if the current chief has guided it down a less overtly political path than some of his predecessors.

Sharif’s last term as PM came to an abrupt and ignominious end in 1999 when he was deposed in a coup led by General Pervez Musharraf. He was sentenced to life in prison by a military court before being allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The army has taken a much less political role under current head General Ashfaq Kayani, who voted early and publicly in Saturday’s poll — a powerful symbol in a country ruled for more than half its life by the military.

Musharraf is now under house arrest in Pakistan, facing a host of legal cases dating to his nine-year rule.

Political analyst A.H. Nayer said talk of a potential clash between Sharif and the military was overblown. “I think the army will have to back the government, they have no choice,” he told AFP.

“I think Sharif’s government will come out with an impression that it is not against the army as an organisation — he was against only one general who staged a coup.”

It remains unclear whether Sharif will preside over any substantive policy change in the war on militants. While he has voiced support for peace talks with the Taliban, he has been less vocal against US drone strikes than his main rival Imran Khan, and is considered a pragmatist with whom Washington can work.

Sharif’s main task will be to put together a coalition government stable enough to match the achievement of the outgoing government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and last a full five-year term.

The 63-year-old’s unprecedented third term as prime minister results from widespread unhappiness with the PPP government, but also from the performance of his Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) in Punjab.

While other provincial governments across Pakistan were thrown out, incumbency was no impediment to the PML-N.

The people of Lahore, Punjab’s capital and heartland of PML-N power, celebrated long into the night after Sharif claimed victory from the balcony of his party’s elegant headquarters — his former home — in a rich suburb.

Supporters thronged the streets in cars, on motorbikes and on foot, waving banners and stuffed tigers — Sharif’s election symbol — and blocking junctions to sing jubilantly.

Saeed Anwar, a Lahore businessman, said the past five years had been a catastrophe, with the economy and security situation dire and ordinary Pakistanis’ lives blighted by power cuts that last up to 20 hours a day.

“We needed change in this country because we need electricity, we need water we need peace and stability,” he told AFP.

While the PPP’s lacklustre campaign focused heavily on the “martyrs” of its past and the injustices perpetrated against it by the shadowy “establishment”, the PML-N could point to tangible achievements.

During two tenures in the 1990s the party built Pakistan’s only motorway. During its rule of Punjab province over the past five years it created new roads and bridges for Lahore and a city metro-bus system — the first proper urban public transport system in the country’s 66-year history.

It has also targeted young voters with scholarships and free laptops.

For Mohammad Sabir, 23, originally from Kashmir but studying at a religious seminary in Lahore, the message was simple: while other parties talk, the PML-N delivers what people need.

“I am not from Punjab but living here I have seen the PML-N cares for the people and does good for them. That’s why I supported them,” he said.

“Loadshedding, job opportunities, unemployment — these should be the priorities of the government. We are hoping they will address these issues.”

Sharif went into the election promising to transform the economy, end corruption in state-owned enterprises, build a motorway from Lahore to Karachi and launch a bullet train.

He and his party come with a reputation for economic competence, but the Pakistan of 2013 is not the Pakistan of 1997 when he last took office.

Power shortages are crushing industry, the currency has crumbled and analysts believe Sharif will have little option but to negotiate a fresh loan from the International Monetary Fund to stave off a balance of payments crisis.

The man nicknamed the “Lion of Punjab” faces a mighty task to make Pakistan roar again.

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