12 May 2013

Dr Gareth Price

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


Pakistan's election outcome was a significant victory for Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML-N. Voters appear to have demanded change, but rather than turn to the untested Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) they have reverted to Nawaz Sharif, who like Benazir Bhutto was twice elected to power in the 1990s.

The election represented a severe case of what is, in South Asia, termed anti-incumbency; the tendency to throw out a discredited government. Both the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party – which performed well in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the previous election – appear to have lost significant numbers of seats; in terms of representation only the Mutahida Qaumi Mahaz (MQM), which gains support from Karachi and Hyderabad in Sindh, looks set to gain a similar number of seats.

Where the PPP won seats in Punjab often stemmed from competition between the PTI and the PML (N). But the election has done little to forge unity in Pakistan; if anything the reverse. The PPP, along with the MQM, remains concentrated in Sindh and, more importantly, the PML (N) is very much the party of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province. While Imran Khan may have failed to change the system, his party appears to have won control of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan's most turbulent province bordering the tribal areas. If the PTI is able to bring change, and to change the narrative regarding this province, its claim to power in Pakistan in the future will be massively enhanced.

Presuming that the PML (N) has won a majority – or close enough to it – the challenges the party will face are relatively clear-cut. Given its lack of representation outside of Punjab it could either act as a Punjabi chauvinist party, alienating the smaller provinces, or reach out to smaller parties. Thus far, Nawaz Sharif has stressed that he will adopt the latter course.

Political comeback

An even more significant question, however, is what Nawaz Sharif has learnt since being ousted in a military coup, imprisoned and then exiled. Even those generally undisposed towards military regimes were sanguine when Sharif was ousted by General Musharraf given the levels of corruption and self-serving policies he introduced. For all of its challenges over the past two decades, the only time that Pakistan defaulted on sovereign debt was under Sharif's stewardship. On this the signs are relatively promising. His brother, Shahbaz, chief minister of Punjab in the previous government, has stressed the need for better governance, in part in response to the challenge presented by Imran Khan.


Had the election resulted in a relatively weak coalition some elements of Pakistan's future would have been relatively easy to discern. The previous government survived, despite its faults, in part because it was happy to cede responsibility to key elements of Pakistan's foreign policy towards India, Afghanistan and the US, to the military. While the government expressed its desire to build bridges with India, practical action was limited and often undermined by events. A weak coalition would almost certainly have adopted a similar strategy.

But the position of the PML (N) would appear to be strong, and while Sharif was initially a protégé of the military, having been ousted in a military coup, intuitively he would want to curb its power. Sharif's rhetoric towards India has been positive, and he is likely to attempt to try to push through improved economic ties with India. Whether the military assents to this, or accepts a more limited role in Pakistan's polity, is untested and unknown.

Less violence?

On domestic terrorism the runes are also unclear. When it ruled Punjab in the 1990s the PML (N) adopted a strong-arm, and relatively successful, approach towards Islamist groups. In recent years, however, it has preferred to forge an accommodation with them, provided that they did not operate within Punjab. As a national government, however, this is less feasible. Indeed, while the incumbents performed poorly, all were restricted in their ability to campaign because of Taliban threats. If the PML (N) feels in some way beholden to these groups, the future for more secular, liberal Pakistanis will be dark.

Pakistan's commercial centre, Karachi, has also become beset with violence, in part politically-motivated as supporters of the three main constituents of the previous coalition fought for control of various protection rackets. As a non-combatant, so to speak, the PML (N) may be better placed to calm the situation. Indeed, the threat of the imposition of some form of direct rule or military intervention should violence escalate may well encourage the PPP, MQM and ANP to resolve their differences.  

Foreign policy, and relations

The element of Pakistan's foreign policy of most concern to the West will be that the PML (N), along with the PTI, campaigned on a platform of withdrawing from the 'war on terror'. Two potential courses of action present themselves in relation to this pre-election pledge. The first would be to steer a course towards confrontation with the West. Clearly the use of drones is going to come under severe threat; if the US continues to use them within Pakistan against a government that has been elected to stop them, Pakistan would seem likely to close its borders to NATO convoys; with most Western troops meant to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014 a shift to the Northern Distribution Network – passing through Central Asia - would have significant logistical and financial implications. The threat of halt to Western support for Pakistan (through the IMF for instance) may have less leverage if Sharif thinks that Saudi Arabia, with which he has close ties, could step in.

The alternative – presuming that the US does halt drone strikes for now - would be for Pakistan to play a role in facilitating some form of political process with the Afghan Taliban. Again, the question would be whether this would be something the military would put up with. Pakistan's future looks interesting, as the Chinese curse puts it.

More on Pakistan.