Sharif lead puts spotlight on Pakistan foreign policy
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As seasoned Pakistani politician Nawaz Sharif looked set Monday to win a record third non-consecutive term as prime minister, international attention has focused on his plans to tackle Islamist militancy in the region.
With Nawaz Sharif poised to make Pakistani history by winning his third non-consecutive term as prime minister, international attention on Monday was focused on his foreign policy agenda in a region plagued by Islamist militancy.
Partial results of Saturday’s landmark vote suggested Sharif’s party, the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League), would have a commanding hold on the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament.
As the official results rolled in from across the country, Sharif began talks on Sunday to form a new government even as his main opponent, the cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, said his PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf) party would investigate reports of irregularities.
Reporting from the capital of Islamabad on Monday, FRANCE 24’s Taha Siddiqui said there were protests in some of the country’s main cities. “Imran Khan’s supporters are protesting right now in Karachi and Lahore and other cities. They’re asking the election commission to look into this issue,” said Siddiqui. “But Nawaz Sharif has a massive lead over Imran Khan so these rigging allegations will not affect the results that much when they officially come out in a few days.”
As world leaders – including US President Barack Obama – congratulated Pakistan on Saturday’s historic vote, attention was focused on the South Asian nation’s Islamist militancy problem.
In an interview with the Pakistani daily, The Express Tribune, on Monday, a close aide to Sharif said the new government would revisit the country’s foreign policy – including all “covert and overt” agreements with the United States.
But, he added, the PML-N did not seek a ‘divorce’ with the US. “Our foreign policy will make sure that it protects Pakistan’s interest without damaging its relations with other countries, including the US,” said the aide, who requested anonymity.
Afghanistan seeks ‘reset’ on Pakistani ties
In the run-up to Saturday’s vote, Sharif criticised US drone strikes targeting militants in Pakistan and called for peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban.
While the Taliban failed to disrupt the election as promised, militant groups did succeed in turning the 2013 campaign into an especially bloody one, with at least 130 people killed in pre-election violence.
The Taliban however did not target the PML-N party – unlike the outgoing PPP (Pakistan Peoples’ Party) – raising concerns that a Sharif administration would be soft on militancy.
But following Saturday’s election, amid growing signs of a PML-N victory, Sharif and his aides have been quick to dispel potential international concerns.
In an interview with the British newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph, Sharif said he would not pull back on the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
“What is most important is that we must never allow our soil to be used by anyone to create problems with any country in this world,” he said.
Sharif’s comments came ahead of the 2014 US troop pullout from Afghanistan, with some Pakistani analysts warning of a “blowback” of militancy from across the border and regional leaders apprehensive of the repercussions across their borders.
Speaking to the press on Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai promised “full cooperation'' with the new Pakistani government. But he also alluded to the often tense relations between the two countries and Kabul’s longstanding suspicions that Islamabad has been aiding insurgents.
“We hope that the new elected government provides the ground for peace and brotherhood with Afghanistan'' and cooperates “in rooting out terrorist sanctuaries,'' said Karzai.
Can Sharif handle militancy – and the military?
Reporting from Islamabad, Siddiqui said world leaders were now looking to see how Sharif would tackle militancy.
“This is the biggest challenge that the new prime minister will be facing,” said Siddiqui. “Pakistan has lost over 50,000 people in the militancy since 9/11. The last government could not control the militancy. They did however start a few military operations in the northwest of Pakistan. Now, Nawaz Sharif will have to take such tough decisions.”
A two-time prime minister in the 1990s, Sharif supported the Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan, a policy he later admitted was a failure. Critics also worry that Sharif, who is known to be personally very religious, is soft on Islamic extremism and won't crack down on militants, which could be a potential source of conflict with the Pakistani military.
In a country where the military has historically held the reins of power, analysts are focused on Pakistani civilian-military relations – an issue that has dominated the country’s politics.
On the campaign trail, Sharif promised his supporters that if he became prime minister for the third time, he would ensure the military follows the orders of a civilian government.
But while the Pakistani military is not perceived to have overtly interfered in the 2013 poll – unlike previous elections – there are questions over whether the military would yield to a civilian leader on domestic and regional security.
With the US pullout from Afghanistan looming, Washington will be carefully watching Sharif especially since US-Pakistani ties have deteriorated considerably since the 2011 US killing of Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani army town not far from Islamabad.
But the US nevertheless relies on Pakistan’s help to fight Islamist militants and the Pakistani military in turn relies on US military aid.
Analysts note that once in power, Sharif is likely to build a pragmatic relationship with Washington. In an interview with the AFP, Pakistani political and security analyst Imtiaz Gul noted that Sharif is “likely to approach the US with maturity and dispassionately".