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Published: Sunday, 5/26/2013

New Pakistani leader faces tall order of issues

BY S. AMJAD HUSSAIN
BLADE COLUMNIST

Recent elections in Pakistan reaffirmed that Pakistanis, like people elsewhere in the world, are democratically inclined and wish to live a life free of poverty and violence. They do not want to be pawns in a global game of chess.

Voters rejected the ruling Pakistan People Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari, which had ruled the country for the past five years. His rule brought the country to the brink of financial disaster and made it a client state of the United States.

Voters also rejected the PPP’s coalition partner, the Awami National Party (ANP), which has its power base in the turbulent Khyber Pukhtun Khwa province.

Educated Pakistanis and young people pinned their hopes on Imran Khan, a former cricket hero, to win a decisive victory to form the government. His promise of tackling corruption, violence, and foreign interference in Pakistan resonated among voters, but not to the extent that they gave him a majority in the parliament.

Instead, Pakistanis voted for Nawaz Sharif, who had two previous, mostly lackluster, stints as prime minister. But his message of stability, economic revival, and addressing the issue of communal and religious violence was enough to put his party on top.

Mr. Sharif may be in a better position than others to effect positive change. As a businessman, he is likely to help stabilize the economy. As prime minister, he built most of the superhighways in Pakistan.

And then there is the issue of Pakistani Taliban. They have been wreaking havoc with random attacks of violence. Mr. Sharif seems to have an understanding with the Taliban, who gave him and Mr. Khan a free pass during campaigning. Taliban fury was mostly targeted against the PPP and its allies.

What concessions Mr. Sharif has promised the Taliban are not known. But within the constraints of the parliamentary system and the wishes of the voters, there is not much wiggle room for him to implement Islamic law, even if he were so inclined.

His relations with the powerful Pakistani army will be crucial. Pervez Musharraf, as army chief, staged a coup against him in 1999. To placate the powerful brass, Mr. Sharif has said that coup was the doing of one individual: Mr. Musharraf.

Mr. Musharraf returned to Pakistan after living in exile for five years to take part in the election. Instead, he was barred from running for office and put under house arrest for dismissing Supreme Court judges during his rule.

According to the Pakistani constitution, Mr. Musharraf also could be charged with treason for dismissing a democratically elected government. But the army would not allow that.

The army most likely would protect its former chief on another charge. In May, 1999, unbeknownst to his civilian bosses, Mr. Musharraf invaded part of Indian Kashmir while Mr. Sharif and his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpaee, were close to reaching an agreement over the thorny issue. The misadventure destroyed that opportunity. In the Pakistani army’s India-centric policy, there is no room for compromise.

But perhaps the most important challenge for Mr. Sharif is to find accommodation with the United States. While President Zardari signed on to everything the United States demanded, Mr. Sharif may not be that pliant.

He and Mr. Khan opposed American drone attacks on Pakistani territory. Mr Sharif, however, has promised to assist the United States in its withdrawal from Afghanistan next year.

While Mr. Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaaf Party could not win a majority in parliament, it did stage an upset victory in Khyber Pukhtun Khwa province. In doing so, it delivered a severe blow to the deeply entrenched Pashtun national organization, the Awami National Party. It will be interesting to see how Mr. Khan’s party rules the restive and violence-prone province where Taliban are dominant.

Mr. Sharif is not a visionary leader. But he has shown in his previous stints that he can be pragmatic.

It is a tall order for anyone to tackle the myriad problems facing Pakistan. If Mr. Sharif can improve the economy, stop religious violence, and keep the powerful army at bay, he will accomplish what his predecessors failed to do.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net



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