Despite the opposing party’s claims of vote rigging, according to unofficial results disclosed on Sunday, Nawaz Sharif seems poised to become the prime minister of Pakistan. While Sharif has not officially won the election, both the U.S. and India have already congratulated him on the historic, peaceful transition of civilian power, and Sharif has already selected a finance minister to serve on his cabinet.
In this political comeback after being ousted in a military coup 14 years ago, and being jailed and going into exile in Saudi Arabia, Sharif and his center-right Pakistan Muslim League Party is projected to win 130 of the 176 directly elected seats in Pakistan’s national assembly. This shows a crushing defeat of the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party, the party of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, dropping from 125 to 33 assembly seats. It also puts Sharif and his party in a much stronger position than the PPP, which had a weak coalition in its 5 years of rule and often teetered on the verge of collapse.
Sharif has presented himself as a pragmatist to the Pakistani people, promising business with the United States as well as better relations with India. His message has seemed to instill a sense of hope within Pakistan, as stocks in Karachi hit an all-time high on Monday.
What does Sharif’s resounding victory mean for Pakistan? The ousting of the former PPP, the (relatively) peaceful transition of civilian power despite some election violence, and the rise in stocks implies that the Pakistani people wanted change, and are hopeful that Sharif’s pragmatist, pro-business agenda can bring it. The 16% increase in voter turnout, to 60% from the 44% in the 2008 election, also shows the importance of change to the Pakistani people.
During his campaign, Sharif said that he plans to end Pakistan’s role in the U.S.-led “war on terror” in the interest of Pakistan’s national sovereignty, leading to fears that Islamic militants, especially those in the stronghold Punjab region, will be able to rise. Moreover, the Pakistani army remains a strong force within the nation, leading to questions on Sharif’s true power over the wishes of the military.
Some have also expressed concern that this can also lead to tense relationships with the U.S. This is an important issue to consider, especially given the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan that, according to Pakistani government claims, often end up killing civilians as collateral damage, and the fact that Sharif has asserted that these drone strikes threaten Pakistan’s sovereignty and are a “top concern” for the nation. However, as a “pragmatic” leader, this does not seem to be a reason for Sharif to allow Pakistan’s business relations with the U.S. to sour; if anything, his pro-business agenda will allow these relationships to improve into the future, even with a more nationalistic and protective stance on Pakistan’s sovereignty. Obama’s congratulations on the success of Pakistan’s elections also indicate better relations with Pakistan on the horizon.
Despite these concerns, Sharif’s leadership is expected to help Pakistan’s economic woes, as much of his support comes from businessmen. Moreover, the PPP has often been perceived as having done little for Pakistan’s economy, and, as Pakistani newspaper columnist Cyril Almeida has said, “Anything better than zero and you’ve already improved on the PPP’s performance of managing the economy.”
The elections in Pakistan are a huge turning point for the nation, not only in its peaceful transition of power in a country which has experienced several military coups, but in its role in Pakistan’s evolving relations with other countries, and Pakistan’s increasing role as a player in international politics.