The Pakistani election: Why Sharif?

Former Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party Nawaz Sharif, center, addresses his supporters as his brother Shahbaz Sharif, right, and daughter Maryam Nawaz, second from left, listen at a party office in Lahore, Pakistan, Saturday, May 11, 2013. AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

The votes are not yet all counted, and a video has surfaced showing alleged vote rigging in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. But Nawaz Sharif, a 63-year-old establishment figure, has apparently become, for the third time, the prime minister of Pakistan.

A short, stocky, wealthy, free-market politician with past Islamist ties, Sharif is head of the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz. His is one of many successor parties to the Muslim League -- the only political party in Pakistan at its founding in 1947.

President Obama called Sharif Tuesday to congratulate him, and Pakistan, for its historic transfer of power, the first between civilian governments since Pakistan, plagued by military coups, was created.

Sharif defeated the slightly younger, dynamic, athletic, handsome and untested Imran Khan, whose party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, (Pakistan Movement for Justice) has never governed before. Khan, 60, who rose to fame in 1992, when he was captain of Pakistan's world champion cricket team, has been in politics for 14 years. Once married to an English socialite, with whom he has two children, he was an also-ran until 2011, when he began to hold rallies condemning the U.S. drone strikes. That won him support from Pakistan's urban youth, 50 percent of whom are under 22 in this nation of 180 million. Khan also, like Sharif, declined to criticize the Taliban, and in fact was condemned in the media for being a Taliban sympathizer.

Why did Sharif win? "The economy, the economy, the economy," he said at his victory party. His party represents the business class, and the economy is bankrupt. The country's currency, the rupee, has fallen 40 percent since 2007, according to the CIA World Fact Book, and 50 percent of the population, according to the U.N. Human Development Report, live in poverty.

Sharif, born to a family of a prominent Lahore industrialist (his family owns steel mills, including sites in his nation's ally Saudi Arabia, where he was sent into exile by Gen Pervez Musharraf in 2000) went into politics in the 1980s to protect his family's business interests. Pakistanis hope that he can revitalize the economy. Pakistan, which receives over $2 billion in U.S. aid annually and probably more from Saudi Arabia, cannot even provide adequate electricity to its people. The Karachi stock market, pleased with the election results, has rallied.

But Sharif won, too, for another reason. He is a Punjabi, the largest ethnic group in Pakistan. Khan is a Pashtun, whose mother comes from South Waziristan, in the tribal belt of Pakistan, home to the Taliban. The majority of the Pakistan military, the bureaucracy, and 60 percent of all Pakistanis are Punjabi. The Punjab, which borders India, Pakistan's enemy in three wars, and on which the Pakistani army has a laser focus, is the bread basket of Pakistan. It is also home to extremist groups, like Lashkar-i-Tayba (Army of the Pure), which is responsible for the Nov. 26, 2008, terrorist attack in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), in which 122 people were killed.

The most important issues for the U.S. are Pakistan's military ties to the Taliban. In September 2011, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Haqqani Network, a powerful jihadist group, "a veritable arm of the ISI," Pakistan's military intelligence.

The second issue, and one in which Nawaz Sharif played a role when he was previously prime minister, is nuclear arms. In the spring of 1999, Musharraf, chairman of Pakistan's joint chiefs of staff, ordered the Pakistani Army -- possibly without Sharif's knowledge -- across the Line of Control into Indian-held Kashmir. India and Pakistan were on the brink of a possible nuclear war. The U.S. sided with India. President Clinton, in a diplomatic victory, was able to convince Sharif to retreat.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Pakistan has 70 - 90 nuclear warheads and India some 60 - 80, with Pakistan having produced enough fissile material to produce 90 more. The U.S. is afraid that jihadist groups, like al Qaeda, headquartered in Pakistan, will someday get their hands on a nuclear warhead. And the Obama administration is concerned that China, Pakistan's ally, will sell more nuclear reactors to Pakistan.

Finally, the U.S. needs Pakistan's help to exit landlocked Afghanistan and to bring its materiel to the port of Karachi for shipment back to the U.S. At a press conference Tuesday, Sharif indicated that he would help the U.S. leave Afghanistan.

  • Jere Van Dyk

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