Pakistan election: Why voters backed Nawaz Sharif

  • 13 May 2013
  • From the section Asia
Nawaz Sharif, leader of political party Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN), addresses supporters during an election campaign rally on May 03, 2013 in Multan, Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif has established himself as the most successful politician in Pakistan's history.

It's not just that he has won an unprecedented third term as prime minister. He has also survived sustained corruption allegations, periods of deep unpopularity, imprisonment, exile and being thrown out of power in a military coup.

The last time he lived in Prime Minister's House, in the late 1990s, his main objective was to see off anyone who challenged his authority. Frustrated by opposition in the parliament, he tried to pass a constitutional amendment that would have enabled him to enforce Sharia law.

He also confronted other power centres - a mob of his supporters ransacked the Supreme Court and he tried to rein in Pakistan's powerful military. It was his decision to sack two army chiefs in rapid succession that led to General Pervez Musharraf's military takeover in 1999.

The army convicted Mr Sharif of hijacking a plane in which Gen Musharraf had been flying. Mr Sharif was imprisoned and then sent into exile in Saudi Arabia. It is still not clear whether he will want revenge against the army in general and Pervez Musharraf in particular.

'Power hungry'

Gen Musharraf is currently stuck in his Islamabad home, which has been declared sub-jail. He faces a whole array of legal charges and can only have watched the TV coverage of the Sharif election victory with consternation.

When Nawaz Sharif was removed from power in 1999, many Pakistanis expressed great relief, describing him as corrupt, incompetent and power-hungry. By overlooking that history and giving him such a strong mandate in this weekend's elections, Pakistanis have expressed their confidence that Mr Sharif is now an older and wiser politician.

And many voters are hoping his family's business acumen will help Pakistan recover from near bankruptcy. Mr Sharif understands that is one of the main reasons people voted for him. At his victory party, he was asked to outline his priorities. "The economy, the economy, the economy," he said.

Nawaz Sharif has a record of delivering high-profile infrastructure projects. The motorway between Islamabad and Lahore is one of his proudest achievements. This time he is promising a bullet train between Karachi and Peshawar.

As well as his ability to think big, Mr Sharif's appeal lies in his conservative values and Punjabi identity. Punjab is the richest and most populous province in Pakistan, and has over half the seats in the National Assembly. Mr Sharif has relatively little support outside the province.

He can communicate with the religious middle classes and small-town traders who see him as being as politically solid as he is physically stout. His placid, rather shy, character gives him an air of dependability. And his decision to conduct nuclear tests in 1998 shores up his image as a proud Pakistani, strong enough to stand up to India and the US.

In his election victory speech, he reflected the yearnings of many in his electoral base when he said he wanted Pakistan to be "a respectable country. This is what I want in my heart".

Blunder on militants?

Nawaz Sharif was born into a family that made huge sums of money from steel mills and other industrial interests. Even though he was always surrounded by great wealth, and has properties all over the world, many Punjabis see the family's industrial background as a welcome break from the landed aristocrats who have tended to dominate the country's politics.

Image caption How times change... Mr Sharif (L) with Gen Musharraf before the 1999 coup

In the 1970s the family suffered under the nationalisation programme of the leftist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Nawaz Sharif initially went into politics to protect the family's business interests. He was then spotted by military ruler General Zia-ul Haq and, during his dictatorship, became an increasingly important politician.

Washington will be concerned that Mr Sharif's stance on religious militancy is ambiguous. His party candidates for this election included some individuals with a record of jihadi sympathies. Sharif supporters say that's tactically sharp. Critics believe it is a strategic blunder that reveals his willingness to tolerate religious extremism.

During the campaign he failed to condemn the Taliban by name despite the organisation's numerous attacks against so-called "secular" candidates and their supporters. Cynics suggest that is why Mr Sharif's party was never a target and he was able to hold mass rallies with little fear of attack.

When it comes to security and foreign policy, Mr Sharif's campaign speeches left plenty of wiggle room. Although he has suggested that Pakistan should end its involvement in the US-led "war on terror" and that he would favour talks with the Pakistani Taliban, many expect that once he gets into power, he will accept the army's view that all past negotiations have failed and the only option is to fight the jihadis who attack domestic targets.

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