ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - When millions of Pakistanis flocked to the polls over the weekend in record numbers, they did more than just elect a new leader.
They elected an old one, too.
Nawaz Sharif served as the country’s prime minister twice, once from 1990 to 1993, then again from 1997 to 1999. The second term ended with Sharif handcuffed, imprisoned, then forced into exile thanks to a military coup led by Sharif’s handpicked General Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf deposed Sharif when he feared Sharif was about to take away his job – and the powerful status attached to it.
Today, Sharif’s remarkable political comeback is complete. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, holds a near majority in the country’s national assembly. Despite electrifying crowds of young, exuberant voters at his campaign rallies, Sharif’s closest competitor, cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, came in a distant third.
And Musharraf, the man who sent Sharif into exile in Saudi Arabia, now sits under house arrest awaiting trial for treason and involvement in the killing of Benazir Bhutto, a popular politician who was killed in an explosion while campaigning in previous elections in 2007.
Many observers say the new Sharif has come to grips with his previous failings, and the sensitivity of dealing with Pakistan’s large and powerful military establishment.
While campaigning, Sharif went out of his way to say he’d forgiven his enemies, including Musharraf, even though Musharraf placed him, in his own words, in “the darkest of dungeons.” Sharif has also been careful to tread lightly on one of the most sensitive issues in Pakistan – the war on terror.
Pakistan receives billions of dollars a year in U.S. aid to fight a growing militancy within its borders. Sharif has avoided statements or proclamations that would be seen as infringing on military policy. When asked what he would do to fight the war differently, Sharif has been vague, saying mostly that the current war – as evidenced by the more than 40,000 Pakistani soldiers who’ve died fighting it – needs a rethink, and that Pakistan would invite the U.S. and regional stakeholders, including Afghanistan, to brainstorm a new approach.
Over the weekend, Sharif invited a group of reporters to his Lahore-area home, where he made it clear Pakistan would offer its full support to help the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan by its 2014 deadline by opening up its roads and presumably, its Karachi shipping port, so that U.S. military equipment can safely be shipped out of Afghanistan through Pakistan.
Where Sharif hasn’t been vague is the economy. A steel baron by trade, Sharif is one of Pakistan’s wealthiest men. His years in exile were kind to him financially, and it’s widely believed he returned with wealthy Saudi Arabia among his backers. He has repeatedly said his first goal is to fix Pakistan’s ailing economy. Within minutes of his election results being declared official, Pakistan’s stock exchange soared to its highest levels of the year.
His first task: Turning the lights back on. Pakistan is crippled by chronic power shortages. In some areas, including major cities like Karachi and Lahore, Pakistanis go without electricity for up to 14 hours a day. The outages have ruined whatever competitive advantages Pakistan has had over its neighbors in several key industries, with foreign companies increasingly choosing neighboring India and Bangladesh, where electricity is in abundant supply.
But power isn’t the only challenge Sharif will face. He’ll also have to forge a new, and presumably better, relationship with Pakistan’s military than he did in his previous term. And he’ll have to do it while combating sectarian extremists, including some in his own coalition, who have grown increasingly bold in recent years. Many of Pakistan’s minorities, including Shi’ites and Ahmadis, have come under attack by religious ultra-conservatives, who believe Pakistan is and should always be kept a Sunni Muslim state.
Facing all these problems, Sharif enters the limelight of Pakistani politics, confident he can pull Pakistan from the brink of what some say is the brink of a full-blown collapse.
For the seasoned politician, the solution begins and ends with the economy.
“If we do that successfully,” he says, “we’ll solve all our problems in this country.”