Toppled in a 1999 military coup, jailed and exiled, former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif has made a triumphant election comeback and looks set to form a stable government capable of implementing reforms needed to rescue the fragile economy.
Sharif may not win enough seats to rule on his own, but has built up enough momentum to avoid having to form a coalition with his main rivals, former cricketer Imran Khan’s Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
The steel magnate held off a challenge from Khan, who had hoped to break decades of dominance by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the PPP, led by the Bhutto family.
The two parties have formed governments whenever the military, the most powerful force in the nation, has allowed civilian rule.
Khan put up a strong fight and he is likely to remain a force in politics, possibly becoming the main opposition figure. The PPP, which led the government for the last five years, has done badly and could come in third place.
Television channels said that Sharif’s PML-N had captured 94 of the 272 contested National Assembly seats.
Based on trends, it was likely to get about 130, and should easily be able to make up the required majority of 137 with support from independents and small parties.
The PTI had secured 21 seats while the PPP won 19. The elections, held on Saturday, were marred by a campaign by Islamic fundamentalists to block the voting.
Despite pre-poll violence and attacks that killed at least 40 people, voter turnout was 60 percent.
Once it establishes a majority, Sharif’s party would be allocated a majority of 70 other parliamentary seats that are reserved for women and non-Muslim minorities.
Sharif has waited patiently to rule Pakistan again. As the main opposition leader, he avoided undermining the PPP when it was in trouble and analysts describe him as more cautious than when he was prime minister twice in the 1990s.
“Seemingly a genuinely changed man from his troubling stints as prime minister in the 90s, Sharif now appears to have both a genuine mandate as well as a grasp of the direction Pakistan needs to be steered in,” political analyst Cyril Almeida said.
In one sense, the polls were a democratic landmark, marking the first time one elected government was to replace another in a country vulnerable to military takeovers.
However, Saturday’s vote failed to realize the hopes of many that the hold of patronage-based parties would end after years of misrule and corruption.
Sharif declared victory in a jubilant speech to supporters late on Saturday even as votes were still being counted. He is almost certain to become prime minister for a third time.
He has said the army, which has ruled the country for more than half of its turbulent 66-year history, should stay out of politics. However, he will have to work with Pakistan’s generals, who set foreign and security policy, and will manage the country’s thorny relationship with the US as NATO troops withdraw from neighboring Afghanistan next year.
Sharif, who advocates free-market economics, is likely to pursue privatization and deregulation to revive flagging growth. He has said Pakistan should stand on its own two feet, but may need to seek a another bailout from the IMF to avoid a balance of payments crisis.
The PML-N leader has said he could do business with the IMF, meaning he may be open to reforms like an easing of subsidies and a widening of Pakistan’s tiny tax base to secure billions of dollars from the global lender.
However, his main job will be to ease discontent over endemic corruption and crumbling infrastructure. He has described Pakistan as a “mess” and said the key to moving forward is speedy growth.