ISLAMABAD — The victory of Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections will usher in a new period in Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, with Secretary of State John Kerry likely to assume the lead role in relations long dominated by the Pentagon.
Sharif, a right-of-center moderate, is expected to take charge of Pakistan’s foreign and security policy, traditionally the exclusive territory of the country’s military, which has ruled Pakistan for half its 65-year history, Pakistani analysts said.
Saturday’s election marked the first time Pakistan has successfully transitioned from one full-term democratic government to another.
“The civilian government has had practically no say in foreign and security policy since 1977,” when Gen. Mohammad Zia ul Haq staged the third of four military coups, said Suhail Warraich, the political editor of Geo News, Pakistan’s leading cable channel. “That will change now.”
Warraich believes Sharif, who himself was toppled in a 1999 coup during a previous term as prime minister, will be unwilling to let the military maintain its primacy in foreign affairs. “Sharif will impose the writ of the civilian government and will initially try to gently push the military into accepting it. But if there’s any resistance, he won’t accept it,” he said.
Sharif twice served as prime minister in the 1990s, before being overthrown by Gen. Pervez Musharraf in an October 1999 coup and exiled to Saudi Arabia.
During the second term, he worked closely with the administration of President Bill Clinton to resolve crises with India – first in May 1998, when the South Asian rivals conducted tit-for-tat nuclear test explosions, and then in the summer of 1999, when Pakistan’s army launched an unauthorized covert operation along the disputed Kashmir border with India that brought the countries to the brink of war.
As first lady, Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea made several private visits to Pakistan during Sharif’s government from 1997 to 1999. She met frequently with Sharif in his capacity as opposition leader after becoming secretary of state in 2009. Clinton is known to enjoy close relations with him.
Sharif is also known to get on well with Kerry, the new secretary of state, who co-piloted the November 2009 legislation in Congress under which the United States provides Pakistan $1.5 billion in civilian aid every year, up to 2014.
Kerry is a known figure in Pakistan and quite popular for his willingness to listen to Pakistan’s side of the story on matters such as U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where the Taliban is based. He toured frequently as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is remembered for shedding tears of sympathy for the 20 million Pakistanis rendered homeless by devastating floods in August 2010.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party clearly emerged as the victor in a general election that attracted record numbers of voters.
It came close to winning a majority of the 272 directly elected seats in the national assembly, polling about four times as many seats as the next most popular parties, and will form a government later this week with the help of independent members.
The outgoing government of the Pakistan People’s Party, led in all but name by Asif Ali Zardari, the president, was soundly humiliated, losing 90 of the 125 seats it won in the last general election in February 2008. Zardari’s former coalition partners also suffered reversals in what was a rejection of the Zardari government’s dismal record.
The average per capita annual income of Pakistanis has fallen to below $1,000 in the last five years, and lengthy power blackouts and energy shortages have restrained growth to under 4 percent.
The People’s National Party, an ethnic Pashtun nationalist party that had previously governed in the northwest province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, held on to just one of eight seats. Voters there are weary of a decade of Taliban terrorism and instead supported the Movement for Justice, a reformist party led by former cricket star Imran Khan, who had vowed to withdraw Pakistan from the war on terror. He is expected to form a coalition administration in the province.
Overall, Khan’s party won about as many seats as the Pakistan People’s Party. It also came second in Punjab, on the back of votes from the young, women and educated Pakistanis, a social class that previously had favored military rule and distanced itself from the ballot box.
Under Sharif, no major shift in Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan and the broader war on terror is expected, though he is likely to position himself as a regional statesman who’d work with what he’s called "all stakeholders" in Afghanistan toward a comprehensive political settlement.
Sharif’s government was the first to recognize the Taliban government formed in Afghanistan in 1997, and he persuaded Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to follow suit. He subsequently held several meetings with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the head of Afghanistan’s Taliban, who has fallen out of sight since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.
During the election campaign, Sharif had spoken of his belief that talks would have to be held with the Pakistani Taliban – which calls itself the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan – if a resolution to the conflict in the northwest badlands is to be found.
But he tempered his position as election day approached, saying talks would be subject to the Pakistani Taliban ending their violent campaign, which claimed more than 100 lives during three weeks of electioneering, and to their swearing an oath of allegiance to Pakistan’s constitution.
That would have come as a disappointment to the Pakistani Taliban, which targeted the liberal parties of the former governing coalition but largely left the parties of Sharif and Khan alone, because of their stated willingness to negotiate.
In doing so, Sharif echoed the position of Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, expressed in April in response to Imran Khan’s calls for the withdrawal of 150,000 troops from the tribal areas, where the Taliban is based.
Khan also had vowed to order the air force to shoot down drones overflying Pakistani air space, but Sharif has said he does not see that as a realistic option.
"Why shoot them down, when the drone flights can be stopped by other means?" he said in a television interview aired Friday, the eve of the polls.
Sharif has said he will press the U.S. to cease drone flights in Pakistani airspace and is planning a series of conferences with other political party leaders to agree on the text of a parliamentary resolution to back that position. He believes that would give him the moral authority of a democratic mandate when he discusses the subject with the Obama administration.
Sharif’s planned foreign policy would differ significantly from the military’s in that he sees the revival of Pakistan’s economy as lying with increasing trade with its neighbors – particularly with traditional foe, India.
"He is convinced that the key to kick-starting the engine of Pakistan’s economy lies in improved relations with India," said Warraich, the political analyst and author of “Who’s the Traitor?,” a popular 2008 book on Sharif’s 1999 overthrow and time in exile.
Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, welcomed Sharif’s victory and said he looked forward to working closely with him to better bilateral relations.
India accepts Sharif’s claims that Musharraf, who was then the army’s chief of staff, launched the 1999 attack in Kashmir without informing Sharif and that it was designed to scuttle a promising peace process that followed the 1998 nuclear tests.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.