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Tuesday May 28, 2024

How not to lose the way — again

It then noted that “Sharif’s accomplishments include holding together a fragile coalition government that spans ideological spectrum from secular parties to Islamic fundamentalists

By Husain Haqqani
March 07, 2024
Prime Minister of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif gestures at PM House. — Radio Pakistan/File
Prime Minister of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif gestures at PM House. — Radio Pakistan/File

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif starts his tenure in circumstances more dire but somewhat similar to the ones in which his older brother, Nawaz Sharif, first became prime minister after the elections held on October 24, 1990. Then, the country faced an economic crisis due to the termination of US assistance after imposition of sanctions under the Pressler Amendment over Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

Pakistan’s external relations were also precarious after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the prospect of war in the Gulf due to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and tensions with India caused by Kashmir and Khalistan insurgencies across the border. Internally, the 1990 general elections were being described as ‘rigged’ by the opposition, which vowed not to let the National Assembly function. The newly elected prime minister was being portrayed as a creature of the establishment that had been installed without popular support.

Within a hundred days of his election, Nawaz Sharif had managed to earn praise from both the domestic and international media. The Associated Press report titled ‘Pakistan government’s first 100 days earn high marks,’ published on February 27, 1991, declared that despite a host of problems, “political analysts and diplomats have given Sharif’s first 100 days good marks.”

Rereading that report from 33 years ago offers some insight into how Pakistan’s new government might manage a good start. The events that followed these successful 100 days could guide Shahbaz Sharif on the pitfalls to avoid that might cause the government to lose its way.

“For Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the honeymoon was over before it started”, the AP report began. “When Sharif took over Pakistan’s democratically elected government in November [1990], he inherited an economy shattered by the effects of the Persian Gulf crisis, a crime rate that was rapidly climbing, and souring relations with the United States, Pakistan’s longtime ally.”

It then noted that “Sharif’s accomplishments include holding together a fragile coalition government that spans the ideological spectrum from secular parties to Islamic fundamentalists. He even offered to make peace with his longtime nemesis, Ms Bhutto, whose administration was dismissed after 20 months in power and then resoundingly defeated in October’s national elections. Appointing a Cabinet of seasoned politicians and experienced bureaucrats. Introducing measures aimed at eliminating bureaucratic red tape and pushing Pakistan toward a free-market economy.”

On the foreign policy front, the Nawaz Sharif government withstood “growing domestic pressure to withdraw the 11,000 Pakistani troops sent to Saudi Arabia as part of the allied force against Iraq.” It also succeeded in “refusing to engage in ‘India-bashing,’ the volatile, accusatory statements that many blame for bringing Pakistan and its traditionally hostile eastern neighbor to the brink of a fourth war last year.”

In a back-handed compliment, AP said that “Sharif’s biggest fault seems to be that he doesn’t talk much, according to analysts and Pakistanis accustomed to the more outspoken Ms Bhutto. Unlike most politicians, Sharif is shy and dislikes the public part of politics. He is much more comfortable quietly striking deals and forging alliances.”

AP reserved its greatest praise for Nawaz Sharif’s economic policies. “The heir to a huge industrial empire, Sharif has used his business acumen to initiate policies aimed at starting up or privatizing businesses. Although the impact has been overshadowed by the Persian Gulf War, Western diplomats and economists have applauded his efforts to jump-start Pakistan’s stagnant economy and spur badly needed foreign investment.”

According to the report, “Sharif has eliminated bureaucratic procedures and other restrictions that impeded investment for decades. He also put into place major credit-and-tax packages to attract industry to rural areas and dismantled foreign exchange regulations that hurt foreign investment. ‘It’s too good to believe,’ said Ghulam Rasul, a Pakistani economist.” It added that “Sharif’s government is still burdened by a growing budget deficit, lost remittances from Pakistani laborers in the gulf, rising inflation, growing unemployment, and a soaring 3.2 percent population growth rate that has outpaced industrial and farm production.”

“Sharif’s administration enjoys a solid parliamentary majority and support from the military”, the AP report concluded, adding, “The opposition is small and poorly organized. The biggest threats to Sharif’s government are Pakistan’s economic problems and fallout from the Gulf War.”

Within a couple of years of such high praise, the Nawaz Sharif government was ousted by then-president Ghulam Ishaq Khan in a classic case of court intrigue. Three factors led to the eventual negative outcome. First, in 1991, then COAS General Mirza Aslam Beg started maneuvers to secure an extension in his three year tenure. Although the senior Sharif succeeded in denying Beg the extension, he ended up setting the stage for a showdown with Beg’s successors.

Second, the establishment chosen accountability advisor, the eternal bureaucrat, Roedad Khan, doggedly pursued corruption cases against the then leader of opposition, Benazir Bhutto and her spouse Asif Ali Zardari though none were ever proved in a court of law. These cases, and Zardari’s incarceration, closed the doors for reconciliation between the government and the opposition. The wounds of the 1990 disputed election only became deeper and more painful.

Third, the deep state’s decision to pursue jihad in Kashmir and to install hardline Islamists in power in Afghanistan led to a breach in relations with the United States, aggravating the difficulties over the nuclear programme. The flow of investment that was anticipated because of a positive set of economic policies never materialized amid hyper-nationalist sentiment. The jihadi environment proved inconducive to the economic vision that the elder Sharif represented.

The lesson for Shehbaz Sharif in all of this? First, avoid a showdown with the establishment. Two, find some accommodation with the opposition. And three, focus on the economy without letting sentimental factors fuel conflict with neighbours or other world powers. Good luck!


The writer, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, is Diplomat-in-Residence at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.