Nawaz Sharif: A Force to be Reckoned with in Pakistan

By Shamila N. Chaudhary

Shamila N. Chaudhary is a Senior South Asia Fellow at New America and Senior Advisor to Dean Vali Nasr at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She worked at the White House as Director for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the National Security Council from 2010-2011. Prior to her tenure at the NSC, she served on the U.S. Department of State's Policy Planning Staff, where she advised Secretary Clinton and the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif was elected Prime Minister of Pakistan for the third time in March 2013. The euphoria of the elections brought to light Sharif’s pro-business, India-friendly, and economic growth-centered approach to governance. But the “promise of Sharif” couldn’t completely shake the old negative epithets about him: incompetent; too cozy with militants; and anti-military. Perhaps the biggest risk was that no one knew who Sharif had become after so many years in exile. Now, with half his term complete, his responses to changes in Pakistan’s governance, economy, and security reveal a pragmatic and adaptable leader open to taking risks and willing to yield power to survive.

Commitment to Governance

The 2013 election brought Sharif back into the mainstream political fold after General Pervez Musharraf removed him from power in 1999 and sentenced him to exile in Saudi Arabia until 2007. Since then, he and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), have made it a point to support and strengthen civilian rule, even as they sat in opposition benches for five years during the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government. This is all the more poignant as Sharif’s two prior tenures as Prime Minister in the early and late 90s straddled PPP governments, making for an intense rivalry between the two.

During the PPP’s most recent tenure, Sharif and the PML-N publicly voiced support for the civilian leadership and acknowledged the need for the ruling party to complete its term. Sharif’s party also led a successful collaboration with the opposition in advance of the 2013 elections to avoid “derailing democracy” at a time when disruptions to civilian rule were extremely unpopular.   

This kind of friendly opposition has slowly improved the way Sharif is viewed in Pakistan’s rough and tough domestic politics. His latest foray into strengthening civilian rule is the implementation of the 18th amendment, a law that transfers federal powers to provincial governments. However, the spirit of Sharif’s commitment to better governance may end up being stronger than his implementation of it. Critics point out that his lackluster persona and outdated approach to governing, “where large infrastructure projects equal development,” will do little to unify a Pakistan that suffers from decades of neglecting to invest in its people.

An Axe to Grind

Given his bad blood with General Musharraf, Sharif was expected to seek payback on the military and on Musharraf, who is currently under house arrest for multiple charges, including murder and treason.

But his penchant for revenge seems to be overly simplified. Instead of using extra-constitutional measures to resolve the Musharraf issue, Sharif has pursued a visibly hands-off approach and has allowed the issue to play out in the judicial system.

Since the beginning of his third term, there have been consistent reports of tensions between Sharif and the military leadership. As it reviewed its crackdown on extremists in the tribal areas in November 2015, the military issued a statement that said its efforts would be “undermined if the government did not take matching government initiatives.” Sharif’s team responded in kind, reminding the military to remain “within the ambit of the constitution.” In reality, Sharif has actually done little to remedy the military’s de facto ownership of national security policy. Instead, he has provided political backing to risky but necessary military endeavors in the tribal areas as well as in Karachi.

Sharif’s willingness to cede power to the military is a survival strategy that makes sense – after all, he owes a small debt of gratitude to the military, as he got his start under military ruler General Zia-ul Haq in the 1980s.

God and militants

Sharif is often described as a militant sympathizer. Since his 2013 election, his team has worked to disabuse the world of this notion, describing him as a religious Muslim who adheres to basic rituals but is comfortable with Western culture, respects minorities, and does not impose his religious views on others. Sharif’s government “defied Islamic scholars by unblocking access to YouTube, pushing to end child marriage, enacting a landmark domestic violence bill, and overseeing the execution” of the late Governor Salman Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri. In March, his description of  Pakistan’s fight against terrorism as a moral obligation supports the claim that years in exile had “partly cured Sharif of any enthusiasm he might have once had for giving religion an even bigger role in national affairs.”

Still, he hasn’t avoided mixing politics with religion. During the 1990s, Sharif unsuccessfully pushed a bill to implement Islamic law and supported the fundamentalist Taliban government in Afghanistan. PML-N leaders have also pandered to anti-India militant groups in southern Punjab, who have access to large vote banks. The low incidence of terrorist attacks on PML-N targets during the 2013 election cycle and the relative quietude of Punjabi militants as the military conducts operations in the tribal areas, hints at the influence and negotiating power the party may have on militancy in Punjab.   

What’s Good for Business is Good for Sharif

Sharif, whose wealth is valued at $100 million, has said that his political philosophy “revolves around economic progress…if a country is economically strong, it is able to solve all the problems, whether law and order or political extremism.” His business-minded approach raises expectations that the economy will do better under his  tenure and seems to transcend any ideological commitments he may have for a more conservative Pakistan. As one Pakistani politician put it, “Nawaz Sharif may still be right-of-center, but he knows extremism is not good for business.” If genuine, such an approach is welcome, but Sharif’s government has a long way to go, given mediocre progress on its campaign promises to end energy shortages and stabilize the economy.

It’s Personal

Once known as a weak administrator who nearly brought India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear war, Sharif is now praised for his “low-key leadership style.” This shift is partly attributed to the influence of his daughter Maryam Sharif, a politician in her own right and a potential successor to Sharif’s party leadership; his brother Shahbaz Sharif, the governor of Punjab who has a reputation as a strong administrator; and Ishaq Dar, an internationally known technocrat connected to Sharif through a family marriage who serves as Finance Minister. The ascendant Sharif is bolstered by the combination of these relationships, but this strength can also be a weakness, as the PML-N’s traditional party structure is increasingly unpopular among Pakistan’s growing urban voters.

That Sharif places a high premium on personal relationships is unsurprising for a man who was pushed off the edge by his own government, lived in exile for seven years, and came back to make history. He may continue to not be taken seriously by the international community, too conservative for some, and the butt of jokes in the Pakistani media, but his resilience and willingness to adapt and forego influence for survival means that he – and the PML-N – will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.  

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