Nawaz Sharif

By Kiran Hassan, Research assistant, South Asia Programme

Can a third-time prime minister rescue a nation in trouble? This is a question being asked about Nawaz Sharif since his party won the most number of votes in historic elections in Pakistan last weekend.

The poll – in which one elected Pakistani government succeeded another for the first time since independence in 1947 – leaves Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League–N (PML–N) in charge of a country plagued by terrorist attacks, corruption and daily power outages. Sharif has already made it clear that the economy will be his top priority, but his campaign promise to force the United States to cut back drone attacks on Pakistani soil – albeit now softened – remains in the news.

Sharif and the PML–N saw off a plucky challenge by former cricketer Imran Khan and his Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI), and should now be able to govern alone without needing to form a coalition.

Pakistan’s youthful population meant there were 36 million registered new voters among a total 86m; and voter turnout was substantial, at 60%, including a large proportion of women. Although more than 100 people lost their lives in election-related violence, the Taliban failed to significantly disrupt the vote.

However, Sharif’s two previous unpopular terms in the 1990s hang over him, and his party’s victory in this election rests almost entirely on its success in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.

Final figures released by the election commission on Thursday showed Sharif’s party taking 123 of the 272 directly elected seats in the National Assembly. With 25 independents who normally join the government party, the PML–N will have more than the 137 seats it needs for a majority. It will also be allocated a majority of the 70 other parliamentary seats reserved for women and non-Muslim minorities.

While only winning 26 seats, Khan’s PTI is set to form the provincial government in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which formed the outgoing government, took just 31 seats. However, it will retain its power in Sindh, in the south, and the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari remains president.

This provincial polarisation – especially after more autonomy was given to provincial governments under the 18th amendment to the constitution in 2010 – will require greater diplomacy from the federal government.

Although EU electoral observers broadly praised the conduct of the poll, controversy continues to rage around alleged vote-rigging and delays in Karachi and Hyderabad.

Much of Sharif’s success in implementing reforms in his third term as prime minister will rely on how much he has changed as a politician. His first term (1990–93) ended in acrimony, amid allegations of corruption and incompetence. His second term (1997–99) ended in exile in Saudi Arabia, after General Pervez Musharraf mounted a military coup. Sharif’s second federal government is still remembered for responding to Indian nuclear tests in 1998 with a round of its own.

Sharif returned from exile in 2007, but having once been removed by the army, he will be wary of Pakistan’s powerful generals. Nevertheless he will need to develop a sustainable working relationship with the military.

As Sharif takes over the reins of power, Pakistanis are demanding ‘tabdeeli’ or change. His  repeated assurances that he would revamp the energy sector, revive the economy and eradicate terrorism prompted many voters to back to the PML–N. Now that this party is in a good position to govern on its own, much of Sharif’s future success or failure lies in his own hands. However, Imran Khan’s PTI especially will be looking over his shoulder.

Kiran Hassan will lead a discussion on what Pakistan’s recent election results mean for the country, region and world, on Wednesday 22 May in London. Journalist Huma Yusuf and Professor Ian Talbot will speak.

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