Will Nawaz Sharif’s third tenure be different?


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NOWHERE is politics fixed in time, less so in Pakistan. For decades, Pakistani politics has remained highly unstable and unpredictable owing to a multipronged contest between political parties and the military, on the one hand and dynastic political parties dominated by landowning elites, on the other. Over the past seven years the political scene in Pakistan has changed rather dramatically with new issues and players on the political scene. What has not changed, however, is the character of political actors, the role of various power centres and the shadow of uneasy civil-military relations that continues to affect the democratic transition and consolidation in Pakistan. This is the context within which we assess the third tenure of Nawaz Sharif. In doing so, we need to focus on some primary questions. What brought Nawaz Sharif back in power? What is his vision of Pakistan? What constraints and challenges does he face and why? In answering these questions, we wish to examine what caused his premature ouster from power twice, and whether or not his politics is likely to be any different from the past.

Sharif’s transformation from a businessman to a politician is best traced to the military regime of General Zia ul Haq. His political ambitions fitted well with the political needs of the military regime for cultivating anti-Bhutto groups that were negatively affected by his politics and policies. Sharif’s conservative, religious outlook and good standing within the business community, along with grievances against Bhutto for nationalizing his industries, made him a fit candidate for a job with the military regime – first, as the finance minister of Punjab and later, as the chief minister of the province.


The political rise of Sharif lies in the political polarization of the 1980s. Fearful of the revenge and raw power of young Benazir Bhutto, the military was gifted what it wanted in the 1988 elections – a divided mandate. While Benazir with a plurality of members was allowed to become the first woman prime minister, Sharif remained chief minister of Punjab. The divided mandate and weight of the military on the side of Sharif further added to the political confrontation in the country. With the real centre of power behind him, Nawaz became the prime minister for the first time in 1990. However, it is widely believed that the 1990 elections were rigged in his favour.1

It took time for Sharif to emerge from the shadow of the military establishment. With many of the generals who had cultivated him for a political role gone, he began to exercise power as the real chief executive in most areas, leaving the critical foreign and security policy domains to the military. Both Benazir Bhutto and Sharif found the democratic transition incomplete and saw the transfer of power as partial. The president was intrusive and the military watched each move of the prime minister with suspicion. The military wanted to retain a subverted form of the constitution that allowed the president to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve the legislature under Article 58(2b) as a lever and balancer against the prime minister.

This power clearly conflicted with the parliamentary spirit of the constitution, and though both Bhutto and Sharif resented it, they needed to wait until they had a consensus and the power to undo it.2 Nevertheless, even in his first term, Sharif displayed impatience with the restraints placed on the exercise of his executive powers and soon came into confrontation with the president. He was removed before completing his term; the elections in 1993 brought his rival Bhutto back to power. The political fortunes had once again changed; plainly the politics of Pakistan resembled a game of musical chairs with invisible hands pulling the strings. After Bhutto was dismissed a second time, the 1997 elections once again brought Sharif to power.


The second tenure of Sharif, like the first one, was dominated by political confrontations – a weakness that has marked his political career – with the opposition parties, the president and judiciary. What remained consistent was Sharif’s tendency to centralize power around himself, create a small group of loyalists and rule without much debate or consensus on vital national issues. With a two-third majority in the 1997 elections, cynically termed by his opponents as the ‘heavy mandate’, Sharif appeared to be on a high. He began to exercise real power as the chief executive, giving up on the caution and care that a political order in a post-military regime and a strong praetorian tradition demanded. In forcing the Chief of Army Staff, the President and the Chief Justice of Pakistan to resign within a span of a year, he was unable to appreciate the political logic and reasoning of consolidating power in a democracy with a complex and painful legacy of subversion of the constitution. When he sacked the second Chief of Army Staff, General Pervez Musharraf, the ‘empire’ struck back. He was not only removed by the military but also humiliated, imprisoned, tortured, convicted and later exiled.


It was not all luck, but perseverance, resolve and resilience that helped Nawaz Sharif stage a political comeback when it looked all over for him. While the general riding the high horse of power appeared to be in control, planning for the next decade, Sharif confined to Saudi Arabia waited for an opportune moment to re-enter Pakistani politics. The first opening came with his rival, Benazir Bhutto, signing with him a historic document on restoring and strengthening democracy, called the Charter of Democracy.3 The leaders of the two mainstream political parties resolved to straighten out some of the structural problems of parliamentary democracy to ensure free and fair elections. The main focus, however, was on cooperation between the two for a consolidation of democracy – respecting each other’s political mandate.

The general’s power-ship ran aground with a new social movement coalescing against him in March 2007 when he sacked and humiliated the Chief Justice of Pakistan. A movement for the restoration of an independent judiciary soon began to challenge Musharraf’s authority.4 Unlike three other previous democracy movements, this one was led by lawyers, a robust civil society and youth, with help from the new electronic media. The movement weakened Musharraf considerably, forcing him to reach an understanding with Benazir Bhutto.5 With her homecoming on the eve of the 2008 elections, Musharraf could hardly restrain Sharif from returning.


The return of the two leaders changed the dynamics of Pakistani politics. Sadly, Benazir was assassinated just before the elections, leaving Sharif as the only national leader with considerable experience and influence. However, a wave of sympathy for the Bhutto family won her PPP a plurality of seats in the Parliament and a central position for her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, as leader of the party. Sharif, however, gained popular support in the Punjab, the largest province and key to political power in the country. Sharif proved wise in not pushing the confrontation with Zardari to a level that would open space for the military to intervene. This patience paid off in the 2013 elections as Sharif, an old and experienced political hand, built up strong ties with the political elites across the provinces. Though his success has usually been greater in the Punjab than in other provinces, the 2013 elections gave him a clear majority in the National Assembly to form a government, as also a big majority in his home province, the Punjab.

Nawaz Sharif’s third major win in the National Assembly and in Punjab was not unexpected for two simple reasons. First, the Zardari regime (2008-2013) proved to be corrupt, inefficient and extremely inept in governing the country, losing its support in the Punjab. Second, the Punjab government of the PMLN had performed relatively better in governance, economy and development. In an emerging two-party system, Nawaz and the PMLN came across as a better alternative than the tainted PPP, at least in Punjab. Sharif’’s third tenure thus raised hope about political stability, better governance and law and order, revival of the economy, an improved security environment and accountability. These were also some of the major items on his political platform that he placed before the electorate during the 2013 election.


There is another explanation bolstering the hope that Sharif’s third attempt would be different from his previous terms. Sharif’s duration in formal politics has been lengthier, albeit with interruptions, than any of his contemporaries. The two stints in power, exile and experience of working as the chief minister of the Punjab twice, are political assets that many thought qualified him as a suitable candidate to rescue Pakistan from multiple problems – the energy crisis, economy and terrorism topping the list.

Yet, barely one year in office, Nawaz Sharif ran into a major political crisis in the summer of 2014 when two leaders – Imran Khan of Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and Tahirul Qadri, a cleric with political ambition and founder of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) – launched a movement to force him to resign, agree to electoral reforms and hold fresh elections.6 Interestingly, the challenge has risen from within Punjab, and the challengers are relatively new parties though some of the tactics they have used are fairly conventional – a long march with tens of thousands of men, women and children storming the capital and staging a dharna (sit-in) in front of the Parliament. What is new and might transform into a new social movement are the twin slogans of ‘liberation’ and ‘revolution’ the two leaders have invented. They have also aggressively attacked the system – calling it a dysfunctional democracy run by a dynastic political class. One of the gravest impacts of the long protest is that ‘politics as a whole and politicians in general stand demonized.’7


Sharif’s response to the crisis, though initially slow and panicky, has been relatively mature and non-confrontational. He has avoided the use of force that could provide an excuse to his opposition to stay on the offensive. In a smart move, he called a joint session of the Parliament that debated the crisis for almost two weeks and, at the end, unanimously supported the prime minister against the ‘anti-democracy’ forces. He has been successful in securing the cooperation of the PPP and regional parties; they share a common interest in protecting the democratic system. However, it will take much more for Sharif – better governance and effective policy execution – to weather the political storm and overcome the political crisis.

Unfortunately, Sharif has shown a tendency to personalize power, sharing little even with the leaders of his own party. In every major decision on issues of economic revival and restructuring, and national security, his personal imprint is much stronger than policies emerging out of a more inclusive, deliberative process within the PMLN or state institutions. A tendency to know-all, act alone and distrust colleagues seems to have pushed Sharif into relying on a small group of his family and a few trusted colleagues. That rightly created an impression of a political dynasty with a very hierarchical power structure. This doesn’t bother Sharif though, as it gives him control over the party and government, both in the Punjab and at the Centre.


With more than three decades in politics, Sharif has mastered the art of elite networking, making alliances with powerful political families. They have added to the numbers in Parliament and the state assemblies. He has effectively used patronage politics to keep such political families personally loyal and within the fold of the PMLN. Clearly this political style is not in sync with the change taking place with the Imran Khan factor in Pakistani politics – which is activism of the urban youth, a rising middle class and an anti-elite political narrative. Nor does he realize that in an era of rising expectations, and deep economic and social problems and insecurity, he has to act fast. On the contrary, he has been slow and indecisive. A cynical population, frustrated with the traditional political class of which he is a leading figure, expected him to deliver on his promise of economic reforms, higher standards of governance and better security. Quite the opposite has happened. For the crucial first year, Sharif remained less active, less visible and less approachable to members of the National Assembly and leaders of his party from the provinces.

Neither were the structural problems of the country unknown to Sharif, nor was the outcome of the 2013 elections which, well before they were held, were widely expected to bring him back to power. The Punjab electorate always thought he would be a better alternative to the misrule of the PPP and its leaders. But he made no effort to create expert working groups or task forces well before time, and even if some homework was done, he didn’t get things up in full gear in the first hundred days. A year down the line, the privatization of public entities accounting for a big chunk of the national budget like the Pakistan Steel Mills, PIA, power generation and distribution companies, and the stubborn issue of massive ‘circular debt’ still remains unresolved.8 However, to the credit of his government, the economy as a whole has stabilized though, as all indicators show, it is not yet out of crisis.9 The problem is that he has avoided taking tough decisions in the first year to restructure the economy, remaining captive to political expediency. Unless he does that, he will not be able to put the economy back on a faster growth path.


If there was a single issue that dominated the 2013 election campaign, it was the energy crisis. Sharif promised to end power outages within the first six months – a rhetorical stance – creating unrealistically high expectations. The energy crisis will take a long time to resolve, as developing cheaper sources of energy and balancing the high production cost inputs with low ones is easier said than done. The PMLN government has unfolded a ‘Pakistan 2025 vision’ to provide sufficient and affordable power by using mostly untapped indigenous resources and end power outages by 2018.10 Not for the first time has such a grand vision been unveiled; the last two governments also produced similar vision documents. It is the poor record of delivery on such plans and promises that makes most citizens of Pakistan into sceptics.


Populism is a serious shortcoming of political style and governance in Pakistan. For Nawaz Sharif and others of his political class, carving out a constituency of support with eyes on the next election is more important than taking difficult decisions that might hurt people in the short-term but prove beneficial for them and the economy in the future. Sadly, Sharif has chosen the populist path. His focus has been on distributing free laptop computers to students securing top positions, affordable chapatti (bread) for urban consumer by heavily subsidizing the producers, and peeli (yellow) taxi and youth loan programmes on lower than market rates. All this involves heavy borrowing, and corruption.

The thrust of Sharif’s economic agenda has remained on addressing macro-economic issues with a heavy tilt toward the market and business community. He has pinned all his hopes on the private sector, and plans massive privatization of public sector entities like the Pakistan Steel Mills, Pakistan International Airlines and power distribution companies that entail a colossal loss to the economy. However, the pace of his economic reforms and restructuring is neither bold, nor swift enough to engender a major shift in economic planning and development.

In view of his industrial background and neo-liberal economic orientation, his opponents often portray Sharif as pro-rich, though in this respect he doesn’t appear to be different from other leaders in the country or trends in the region. While focusing on private sector incentives to restore confidence and attract investments, he seems to have ignored the wider issue of balancing economic growth with distributive justice.

His focus remains firmly on the Punjab and, within Punjab, mainly on Lahore and a few other major cities like Rawalpindi, in launching development projects – flyovers, metro bus service and roads.11 This has created an impression of urban bias and discrimination against him in different regions of the country. Yet, given the electoral weight of the Punjab, which accounts for 55 per cent of the seats in Parliament, it may make political sense for him; also the fact that his party only governs Punjab, besides the federation. Though the narrative of Sharif being Punjab-centric is old, it has become stronger in his third term.


Twice earlier, the primary cause of Sharif’s political troubles was an inability to balance his ambition to exercise power while not crossing the security establishment over foreign and security policy priorities. The third time around, his relations with the military appear to have created both perceptual and real gaps in the thinking between him and the military on some issues. The last time Sharif was in power (1997-1999), he took the bold initiative in signing the Lahore Declaration with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in February 1999 to normalize relations. This led to back-channel diplomacy between the two countries to explore an ‘out of the box’ solution to the Kashmir issue, acceptable to all sides. Apparently, this didn’t go down well with the military leadership. He also had serious differences with the top military brass when they moved troops to the Line of Control in the disputed region and started a limited war during the months of May-July 1999 with India in Kargil.12


After assuming power in the summer of 2013, Sharif once again prioritized his foreign policy with improving relations with India, and non-intervention in Afghanistan. He has embraced a well accepted view that Pakistan cannot achieve sustainable progress, internal stability and peace without settling problems with India and Afghanistan. Nor can it correct the imbalance in civil-military relations. Another aspect of this view is that Pakistan must make the transition from a security state to a democratic, development state. Since 1997, these views have constituted the dominant undertone of Sharif’s foreign policy agenda. His ouster from power in 1999, and the present uneasy relationship with the military, must be read with this view in mind. In a way, he comes across as more dogmatic than realistic, given the power of the security establishment to influence political events directly and indirectly through supportive individuals and groups and on account of the fact that he may not get a positive response from a more confident and aggressive India under Narendra Modi.13

Since assuming power in early 2014, Sharif appears to have run into difficulties with the military establishment. First, his decision to proceed against General Pervez Musharraf, indicted on a charges of treason under Article 6 of the Constitution for toppling his government in October 1999. While he wanted to arrest and place him on trial before a special bench of the Supreme Court, the military extended full protection and support to its former chief. Sharif failed to read the fine line of this message. Nor did it stop there. When the Sindh High Court allowed Musharraf to leave the country, the federal government went into appeal, and the case is still pending. Musharraf still awaits permission to leave the country. The military and many Musharraf supporters read revenge in Sharif’s moves. It was institutional solidarity when the military avenged Musharraf’s sacking by throwing Sharif out of power. Once again that solidarity appears to be on Musharraf’s side. Even for supporters of Sharif, it was not a good move to live in the past and expend attention and energy on an issue that was bound to create problems with the military, as it surely has.


There was the more serious issue of negotiating with the Taliban. The military had taken its worst hits from the Taliban, and wanted to launch a major operation in North Waziristan, the region from where the Taliban groups had dug out bases. The military initially gave its blessings and support to Sharif to negotiate within the limits of the Constitution and territorial integrity of the country. However, there was no clarity about the agenda of talks with the Taliban, nor about what exactly the Government of Pakistan could offer the militia to disarm. The military, as well as the public, feared that the Taliban only wanted to gain time and strength to continue their war against the state. It took time for Sharif, certainly under some pressure, to realize the futility of talks with the Taliban who have a rigid militaristic ideology, rejecting the constitution and democracy, the basic framework of the state. It took a long time before the military’s view of security in the borderlands finally became the policy of the Sharif government.


Sharif has come to realize the power of the military that still remains popular with the people of Pakistan.14 Under pressure from the unending agitations and dharnas, and greatly weakened by the 2014 political crisis, he seems to have relented on seeking greater space on foreign and security policy matters that are central to the concerns of the security establishment. The recent crisis has shifted the balance of power in favour of the military, as it retains an image of a neutral and powerful political broker behind the scene. Both the government and the agitators approached the military to ‘facilitate’ a political solution in September, but relented in the face of opposition.15

The military has remained neutral in the crisis. While affirming its support to democracy, a statement from the military called for the ‘situation to be resolved politically without wasting any time and without recourse to violent means.’16 The crisis has considerably weakened Sharif and he is in no position to claim policy dominance over national security.


So what has gone wrong with Sharif for the third time? The challenges he faces cannot be dismissed simply as trouble created by his new opposition – PTI and PAT. He failed to realize that he had to contend with a highly frustrated and volatile electorate that punished the PPP for its pathetic record on governance. The last election was a referendum on energy outages, a worsening economic and security situation and growing disconnect between the government and society. He needed to act fast and decisively on troubling national issues, and by taking the major parties into confidence. This has not happened. Apart from this failure and many follies, there are serious misgivings about his personalized political style and governance through proxies, which in fact has only reinforced inertia and the problems of ownership.

It is widely accepted that Prime Minister Sharif has not adequately learnt from his own past experience. He has been lax in handling problems and shown little will or urgency in moving the country forward with an agenda of change. If at all, the call for change has become the defining slogan of his arch political rival, Imran Khan. The agitation that has morphed into a political crisis has greatly undermined the authority of the Sharif government.

It is not going to be easy any time soon for Sharif to recover the political ground lost in the agitation. When the crisis ends, if it does, Sharif will be forced to compromise with the opposition, as well as the military establishment. If Pakistan’s history is any guide, political crises have produced no political winners and the centre of power has usually shifted in favour of the military.



1. Air Marshal (retired) Asghar Khan took the case to the Supreme Court against the rigging of the 1990 election. See, ‘SC Says Former Army Chief, DG ISI, President Rigged 1990 Elections’, Tribune, 19 October 2012.

2. All the political parties cooperated to undo the 8th constitutional amendment of the Zia ul Haq era in 1997 through the 13th amendment. Musharraf went back to the 8th amendment political order, which was again re-amended unanimously by the Parliament through the 18th amendment in 2010.

3. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif signed a Charter of Democracy on 14 May 2006 to restore and strengthen democracy in the country. Daily Times, 15 May 2006.

4. The three movements are: the anti-Ayub movement (1966-69), the anti-Zulfikar Ali Bhutto movement of Pakistan National Alliance of nine political parties against the rigging of March 1977 elections (1977), and the anti-Zia ul Haq movement, the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (1983). While political parties launched the last two, the first one was national in character, like the one we saw against Musharraf.

5. Britain and the United States played a role in brokering the deal between Musharraf and BB in 2007 in the heat of domestic troubles in Pakistan and war on terror. Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler, ‘U.S. Brokered Bhutto’s Return to Pakistan’, The Washington Post, 28 December 2007.

6. The dharna and agitation were the longest. In a shift in strategy, the two leaders began to move out of the dharna site in Islamabad and hold big rallies in other cities.

7. ‘Impact of Protests’, Dawn, 16 October 2014.

8. The circular debt refers to the deficit between the cost of power generation by the Independent Power Producers (IPPs) and the recovery from power consumers, which peaked to about PRs 500 billion in 2013. After clearing this mess, the PMLN again faces the same problem due to line losses, and widespread corruption in the generation and distribution system.

9. Sakib Sherani, ‘Economic Management’, Dawn, 3 October 2014.

10. Mehtab Haider, ‘PM Unveils Vision 2025 to Overcome Energy Crisis’, The News (Rawalpindi), 13 August 2014.

11. Hasan Askari Rizvi, ‘The PMLN Mandate’, Express Tribune, 25 August 2014.

12. There are two views on this. The view of the military is that Nawaz Sharif was given a full picture of the plan and its execution. Sharif’s claim is that he was kept in the dark. Sharif, it seems had neither grasped, nor understood when told about what was going to happen. Once in it, he had no choice but to support the military, and later get a ceasefire by approaching American President Bill Clinton, on 8 July 1999.

13. This is the interpretation one gets after the cancellation of the Foreign Secretary level talks. Dawn, 20 August 2014.

14. The Pew Centre Survey conducted in August 2014 suggests that public support for the military is as high as 87%. See, http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/08/27/a-less-gloomy-mood-in-Pakistan. Accessed on 16 October 2014.

15. Baqir Sajjad Syed and Iftikhar A. Khan, ‘Government on Backfoot as Army Looks to Continue "Mediation",’ Dawn, 30 August 2014.

16. Baqir Sajjad Syed and Khawar Ghumman, ‘Army Edict Calms Explosive Situation,’ Dawn, 1 September 2014.