Nawaz Sharif Redux – OpEd


Veteran politician Nawaz Sharif is one of the most enduring figures in the topsy-turvy world of Pakistani power politics. His long political career inspires both loyalty and loathing. Never a flamboyant figure or bold innovator with a grand vision, he has the survival skills to swim with the current. From the already small pool to choose from, Sharif may be the steady leader that the country needs at this stage to reverse its declining fortunes.

It is a great tragedy that, unlike normal democracies, Pakistan’s flawed hybrid model has produced few visionary and transformational leaders with charisma, popular appeal, and moral authority who gained widespread political legitimacy. Frequent institutional interference has not allowed a popular democracy or leaders to grow through free and fair elections. The military has pitted political forces against each other, often with disastrous consequences.

Sharif ticks the right boxes for leadership. His power base is in Punjab, the most populous province and the strongest in the electoral college, where he needs to cobble together a parliamentary majority. After 40 years in politics, he is the finished product of the entrenched governance system. An unwieldy system where the military calls the shots and civilians work in a limited space.

As a three-time former Prime Minister, Sharif has hands-on experience running the government. His political party, PML (N), has an established voter base in Punjab and alliances in the other provinces. Sharif understands the importance of consensus and compromise. It is especially crucial when the constant tug-of-war between elected governments and unelected institutions makes running the country difficult, if not impossible.

Charges of big-ticket corruption, political cronyism, and a testy relationship with the military establishment have dogged Sharif for most of his checkered career. Military and Supreme Court intervention that resulted in imprisonment and disqualification shortened his previous terms in office. To loyalists, he is a brave fighter for democracy unfairly targeted by unelected institutions. To critics, Sharif undermined a fragile democracy by wielding political power to enrich himself, his family, and his cronies.

Sharif will have perhaps one last opportunity to change the country’s downward trajectory and leave a lasting legacy. It depends on his clearance in the court cases he faces and his election. Rising poverty and hopelessness dampen his electoral prospects and those of his party. It stems from decades of populist economics, wasteful spending, and economic mismanagement, for which Sharif cannot escape responsibility.

He will have his work cut out for him. Not only is his decision-making and policy-making maneuverability curtailed by military oversight, but Sharif also has to contend with the cult following of his arch-nemesis, Imran Khan. Currently languishing in jail, Khan is a product of a failed military experiment to find an alternative to the dynastic politics of the Sharif and Bhutto families.

Khan’s confrontational and divisive politics, and inept governance led to his undoing. Having lost the confidence of his military patrons, he is facing a mountain of court cases. He is unlikely to be at liberty to run in the elections scheduled for February next year. But his larger-than-life persona, supported by surrogates and a well-oiled social media machine, will cast a disquieting shadow over Pakistani politics for some time.

Sharif’s primary challenge is to take bold steps to revive the dormant economy, lower inflation, create jobs, and restore hope and confidence among the people. He can build on the recent semblance of political and economic stability under the interim setup. The possibility of structural reforms, better governance, and improving economic fundamentals has driven the stock market to a historic high. And the strict IMF regime has imposed discipline through price adjustments and tariff increases. 

However, the economy is a long way from delivering sustained revenue performance to support expenditures. Hence, the reliance on external loans with onerous interest payments will remain a drag on economic performance for the foreseeable future.

Understandably, Sharif’s driving agenda is economic revival and political harmony. But he should address other critical challenges that the country faces. At least three come to mind: elite capture and abysmal human development indicators (health, education, and population growth) are obstacles to development; lack of respect for human rights and religious freedom fuels extremism and terrorism, damaging state security and risking international isolation; and hostile relations with neighbors, particularly India, force a self-destructive, unwinnable, and unaffordable arms race.

Regrettably, Pakistan has limited options in the short term to change the rules of the game stacked against progressive democratic change. We cannot afford many more failed political gambles or trials at governance. Sharif is a seasoned politician with an engaging style who can balance diverse interests, often at odds. We can only hope he is up to the job.

This article was published at The Friday Times

Saad Hafiz

Saad Hafiz is an analyst and commentator. He can be reached at [email protected].

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