Pakistan will elect a new figurehead president Tuesday, completing the first successful transition in the country’s history from one elected civilian government to another. The man widely expected to win the election, Mamnoon Hussain, is a virtually unknown member of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), the political party led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which returned to office in legislative elections held in May. Sharif will now control all constitutional levers of power.
Governing Pakistan and addressing its myriad problems, including the continuing menace of terrorism, will be no easier for Sharif than for his predecessors.
In May Pakistan’s electorate voted largely along ethnic lines. Sharif’s majority is derived primarily from support in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, which is home to an overpowering majority of the country’s soldiers, civil servants, journalists, and judges.
Lacking support in other regions, Sharif will only heighten divisions in an already polarized nation if he presses his advantage in numbers without seeking consensus on even minor matters. As it is, Punjabi dominance has fueled resentment among smaller ethnicities, including an ongoing insurgency in Baluchistan along the border with Iran and Afghanistan.
Sharif is two months into his third term as prime minister. His previous two terms were interrupted by Pakistan’s all-powerful military, the last time in 1999 when Gen. Pervez Musharraf overthrew Sharif’s government in a coup d’état.
Although he began his political career as a protégé of Islamist military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, he is said to have matured into a pragmatic conservative with wide popularity among Punjabis. But his success in office depends largely on his ability to rebuild Pakistan’s economy as well as wresting control of foreign-policy decision making, which continues to remain in the hands of the all-powerful military.
So far Sharif’s foreign-policy views have been far from clear, adjusted for the benefit of the audience of the moment. His hands are somewhat tied by the anti-Western, hypernationalist rhetoric unleashed during the election campaign by his party as well as by the supporters of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan.
The bombast fuels a Pakistani view of self that contrasts greatly with how the rest of the world sees this nuclear-armed, terrorist-infested Muslim country of 180 million people.
Sharif has promised to fight terrorism with the help of the West and to resume the peace process he had started with India in 1999. If he can deliver on these promises, he will earn the gratitude of a world that worries about Pakistan as an epicenter of global jihad. But Sharif and Khan both represent a major problem that afflicts Pakistan’s politics. Leaders say one thing to Westerners in English and another to their compatriots in local languages.
Pakistan’s national discourse is based on denial of the concerns of other nations. During the 1980s Pakistan denied it had a nuclear-weapons program only to celebrate its existence after nuclear tests in 1998. Jihadi terrorist groups and their leaders are still hailed as heroes, and some even openly participated in the election process without fear of penalty.
Pakistan’s media, both free of government restrictions and unrestrained by concerns about accuracy, constantly feeds conspiracy theories to a nation that tends to blame outsiders for its problems.
Conspiracy theories are often a substitute for examining harsh facts, such as the discovery of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Nationalist bombast supersedes the need for analyzing the country’s underlying economic and social problems.
In such an environment, the parties of Sharif and Khan ran campaigns that created expectations without offering concrete solutions. For example, Sharif has promised to build a bullet train from Karachi to Lahore without explaining how he would pay for it. Similarly, Khan’s demagoguery about shooting down drones drew applause from his enthusiastic followers without examining its implications for U.S.-Pakistan relations.
It is important that Pakistan remains a democracy and makes peace with its neighbors. But if Sharif is to succeed in halting Pakistan’s perilous descent, he must forge national consensus and change the Pakistani worldview. Instead of offering to pay Pakistan’s bills, as has been the case in the past, the international community must now encourage Pakistan’s elected leaders to fully take charge, tame the militants, and educate their own people about the country’s problems.