To talk or not to talk with the Taliban may be the most pressing matter of all, writes Le Monde's correspondent from Islamabad.
ISLAMABAD – Congratulations are already pouring in from abroad, while his supporters have been dancing in the streets of his stronghold city Lahore. Now, Nawaz Sharif is set to become Pakistan's next Prime Minister. Again.
The head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won 122 of the 272 seats in the May 11 legislative elections. And despite the Taliban's attempts at undermining the voting process, the voter turnout was notably high (around 60%).
Sharif, an experienced 63-year-old political leader who has already been Prime Minister twice (1990-1993 and 1997-1999), is short of the 137 directly elected seats needed for a simple majority and will have to form a coalition government.
“I encourage all political parties to join me in trying to resolve the country's problems,” he declared. The fact that he will have to rule with a coalition is bad news for him – his room for maneuver will be reduced, at a time when Pakistan is facing urgent challenges.
The most immediate danger Sharif will have to face is the Taliban insurrection. The radical Islamic movement TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan), originally based in the Pashtun tribal belt near the Afghan border, has gained influence over the past few years, and expanded all the way to the economic capital, Karachi.
During the campaign, Sharif supported the idea of establishing dialogue with the Taliban rebels. The issue remains extremely sensitive, and Pakistani opinion is still very divided on what stance the government should adopt towards the rebels. As the country's political center of gravity seems to have shifted towards the religious right, Sharif – who is close to Islamic parties without being a fundamentalist himself – should be in a favorable position to engage in such a peace process.
Many experts remain skeptical about his chances of success in this area, as all past attempts have failed to satisfy the TPP's inflexible demands. As to radical Islam, Sharif will also have to take a clear stance regarding Sunni extremist groups, which have led a bombing campaign against the Shia minority (20% of the population) in Pakistan.
Sharif will surely try to neutralize these groups. But in return, they will probably ask him to pass laws condemning the Shia minority.
Relations with army
Regarding jihadist terrorism and on many others, Sharif will need to compromise with the military, which will be closely supervising his actions. As the Pakistani “vertical power,” the army looks upon Sharif's return with suspicion. The relationship between the PML-N leader and the establishment (meaning the Pakistani army and Secret Services), is rather tense.
After being the army's candidate in the 1980s in opposition to Bhutto's PPP, Sharif had tried to get rid of his “sponsors” once he got elected. His second term ended with General Pervez Musharaf's military coup, after which Sharif had to spend fourteen months in prison and go into exile to Saudi Arabia.
Since then, Sharif has been the champion of re-balanced powers in Pakistan, in favor of the civilian government. “The chief of the army works under the federal government,” he declared during the campaign. The “third force,” led by Imran Khan (supported by the army according to many analysts), should be leading the opposition and will give the army a way to curtail Sharif's emancipatory tendencies.
“On subjects like the relationship with Afghanistan, India, or the United States, Sharif will try to impose the views of his civilian government,” predicts Sallad Massoud, a retired army general. “But it will be hard for him to do anything without the army's cooperation.” Will the army let him normalize relations with India, one of Sharif's projects? Will they let him play a part in the post-war settlement of Afghanistan, as Western countries expect?
Pakistan is not going through a recession – its economic growth reached 3.7% for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Nevertheless, clouds are gathering on the horizon.
First of all, Sharif will have to deal with the very serious energy crisis that Pakistan is going through. It has been one of the main themes in the campaign. Power cuts can last between 12 and 16 hours a day, depending on where you live in the country. These cuts have been fueling social tensions – violent uprising are not uncommon – and have greatly damaged the industrial sector. The energy crisis has also weakened public finances, with a national debt now amounting to 62,6% of the GDP, and dwindling reserves. With his back to the wall, Nawaz Sharif will have to tackle this financial emergency.
Pakistan already needs to pay back an outstanding amount of $4.6 billion, borrowed from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2008. At the moment, the country is quite incapable of paying this back, and will imperatively have to negotiate a new credit agreement with the IMF.
Other countries, which could back Pakistan financially, are also waiting for this agreement with the IMF to lend their money. In this context, Sharif will need to accommodate the U.S. and their Western allies. What remains uncertain is what consequences this financial pressure will have on his political choices, and in particular on resolving the Afghan post-war crisis. Will Sharif have the luxury to oppose the U.S.? The question remains open, as a growing proportion of the Pakistani public opinion has anti-American views.
Keeping it together
This aspect of the post-electoral equation has not raised much attention so far, but it could well become a thorn in the side of the government in Islamabad. Sharif is a political leader from Punjab, where he was chief-minister before passing on the power to his brother Shabaz Sharif.
As the most populated of all Pakistani provinces (more than half of the total population), Punjab is also the richest. Sharif will have to be careful not to give the impression that he privileges his own province to the detriment of the other three: Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber. Pakistan is a territory of linguistic and ethnic contrasts, and can be a fertile ground for regionalist groups. These can even prove separatist, as in the case of the Baluch nationalist movement.
Federal cohesion will certainly be put to the test. In focus, the relationship between Islamabad and the Sind Province, stronghold of the Bhutto dynasty Pakistani People's Party's (PPP), which suffered a clear defeat on May 11.
The current head of State, Asif Ali Zardari, is the widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was murdered at the end of 2007. When needed, he has proven to be a master in using his Sindhi identity as a political lever. Among all his other challenges, Sharif will have to avoid being accused of promoting the Punjab “hegemony.”