As this column was going to press, early results suggested Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif, a steel tycoon, leader of the Muslim League (PML-N) party and twice former prime minister, had convincingly won Pakistan’s general election. If confirmed, he would become the first elected prime minister to succeed an elected government in the country’s history.
The party was ahead in 127 of the 272 directly elected parliamentary seats, on one of the highest turnouts ever (the election commission put it at about 60% compared with 44% in 2008), with the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) losing heavily. Confounding expectations, Sharif could secure an outright majority, thereby removing the need for the horse-trading and backroom deals that usually accompany coalition government.
The entire campaign, however, was overshadowed by unprecedented violence, with more than 130 people killed in the run-up to the vote. Violence on polling day claimed at least 24 lives and secular parties, such as the PPP, complained that attacks and death threats by the Pakistani Taliban had prevented fair campaigning.
Sharif has a crowded in-tray: he has made normalisation of relations with Delhi a priority and he will have to bolster growth, at least in part by boosting low levels of trade with India, which would also help improve relations between two countries that have fought three wars since 1947. ‘All parties want peace with India,’ said Mehmal Sarfraz, from the South Asian Free Media Association. ‘But only Sharif can deliver, because as a right-wing Punjabi nationalist his patriotism cannot be questioned. If he was in the PPP he would have been called a traitor.’
Sharif has also said he wants to see a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir conflict and has promised to ensure attacks against India are not launched from Pakistan. Central to several of these problems is the government’s relationship with the army. He will be hoping that this term in office will be more successful than his two previous stints as prime minister, in 1990-93 and 1997-99, which were cut short by constitutional crises and a coup in 1999 led by the man he appointed to head the armed forces, General Pervez Musharraf. He then went into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Imran Khan, who was seriously injured just before polling day after a fall from a stage at a campaign rally, failed to make the gains that had been predicted-and expected by supporters-to leave his party holding the balance of power in a hung parliament. A pithy putdown of the former Pakistan cricket captain was made by Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, the PML-N politician who beat him in Lahore: ‘The people might admire him and worship him as a cricket hero, but when they go into the polling booth they are thinking about practical issues like which party will deliver jobs,’ he said.