Votes are still being counted across Pakistan two days after its nationwide general elections, and the big winner is former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose center-right party defeated the unpopular incumbent party and held back a spirited challenge from the anti-corruption party led by charismatic cricket star Imran Khan.
The election results were a wipeout victory for Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N, اکستان مسلم لیگ ن), and Sharif will come into office with a broader mandate and a more stable government than the one he’ll replace.
That, alone, is of vital importance to the United States, which has about as strong an interest in Sharif’s victory, a peaceful transition from the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP, پاکستان پیپلز پارٹی), and the ongoing success of Sharif’s government over the next five years.
Pakistan, with 180 million people, is more populous than nearly every other country in the world — only China, India, the United States, Indonesia and (just barely) Brazil have more human beings. But given that it was essentially a fabricated nation when it gained independence in 1947 as the Muslim-majority nations partitioned from India, it’s never been a fully cohesive country, even in the way that the sprawling and diverse Indian and Chinese nations are. That means that governing Pakistan is already a challenge, and that will likely continue, with each of Pakistan’s four provinces dominated by another party — the PPP retains its stronghold in Sindh province, the PML-N overwhelmingly won its stronghold in the most populous Punjab province, and Khan’s upstart Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice or PTI, پاکستان تحريک) will now control the provincial assembly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Pakistan’s location means that it’s a key piece of U.S.-led efforts to reduce the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and it’s on the periphery of the axis between India and China that will power the global economy for decades to come. It goes without saying that the United States has a huge interest in a safer, more prosperous, more democratic Pakistan, and the United States now has an interest in facilitating as much success as possible for the Sharif government.
Here are six reasons why Sharif, in particular, will now vaunt to the top of the list of world leaders that are incredibly vital to U.S. security and economic interests.
Sharif, a three-time prime minister, will oversee a transfer of power unprecedented in Pakistani democracy
The transition from PPP to PML-N is the first peaceful transfer of power in Pakistan from one party to another following open elections with massive turnout from an electorate that’s clearly engaged about the country’s future. That, in itself, is quite a landmark for Pakistan, even if the voting took place under often violent and imperfect conditions. So from the outset, the United States has a keen interest in ensuring that the transition is as seamless as possible. But beyond that, U.S. policymakers should be delighted with Pakistan’s election results, from the interested standpoint of U.S. national security. Fundamentally, Sharif is a familiar face, given that he previously served as prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and again from 1997 to 1999. His return to power is in many ways a remarkable comeback after his ouster from office in 1999 by army chief of staff Pervez Musharraf — he spent much of the 2000s in exile in Saudi Arabia before returning in late 2007 to contest the February 2008 general elections, but was overshadowed by the assassination of the PPP’s leader, Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. Sharif, in declaring victory, remained incredibly magnanimous to both his civilian and military opponents, and he’s already guaranteed that he won’t try to hound the incumbent president.
As the Afghanistan occupation ends, Pakistan will become devastatingly vital to regional anti-terror efforts
With U.S. troops set to draw down in Afghanistan by the end of 2013, Pakistan will take an even greater role in U.S. security policy — although the United States is ending its 12-year Afghan occupation, that doesn’t mean that the United States won’t continue to have an ongoing interest in the ‘Af-Pak’ region and ensuring that the Taliban doesn’t return to power in Afghanistan. To do that, the United States will need the help of Pakistan’s leadership, both civilian and military, especially with a surging Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the ‘Pakistani Taliban,’ engaged in many attacks throughout the election campaign. There are many genuine issues about how best the United States should pursue radical Islamic elements in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how best U.S. goals align with Pakistan’s own internal security goals, not least of which include increasingly unpopular U.S. drone attacks, and Sharif understands as well as any other civilian leader in Pakistan the delicacy required to work through those issues.
Sharif also understands how to finesse civilian-military relations in Pakistan
Sharif, who was overthrown and imprisoned by Musharraf in 1999 as Pakistan entered another nine-year stint of military victory, appears to have learned the lessons of overreach in his prior term. The current army chief of staff, Ashfaq Kayani, will step down later this year, and Sharif has indicated that he will look to the highest-ranking military official to replace Kayani rather than try to appoint his own favorite (as he did, ironically, in choosing Musharraf). Although Kayani, since his appointment in 2007, has been incredibly sensitive to keeping the military out of open political interference, the military and Pakistan’s intelligence forces still hold a huge amount of power in the country. Sharif and military leaders will most certainly need to be in harmony as they look toward the next five years of relations with the United States, as well as the internal security situation within Pakistan. Unlike the PPP, Sharif will start off with more a sympathetic view toward the Pakistani Taliban, which didn’t target the PML-N the same way that it targeted the PPP in the campaign, and there’s some chance that his election will at least mark a hiatus in the campaign-related violence and provide an opportunity to de-escalate tensions within Pakistan.
U.S. policymakers much prefer a strong Sharif-led government to a weak government or a Khan-led government
Despite polls that showed that Khan and the PTI were making inroads into Sharif’s home province of Punjab, those gains never quite materialized, which means that Sharif’s government will be much stronger than it would have been if the PTI had achieved more wins on Saturday or even if the PPP managed to hold onto 60 seats instead of about 32, according to election results. Although the populist Khan had been the star of the election campaign, in both the national and international media, U.S. policymakers almost certainly preferred Sharif, given Khan’s harsh criticism of the U.S. drone attacks against pro-Taliban militants along the Afghanistan border in Waziristan. Whether or not you think U.S. drone attacks are helpful or not, there’s no way to know how Khan would have navigated U.S. relations as prime minister. With a mandate based on nationalism, Khan could well have managed to antagonize Pakistan’s military, the United States or both, leading to greater uncertainty and perhaps, greater instability.
Sharif could finally begin to normalize Pakistani-Indian relations
Although Pakistan became a nuclear-armed country on his watch, Sharif also took steps toward greater peace with India, and it’s reported that he has already invited India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh to his swearing-in ceremony. With Indian elections coming in 2014, and with Singh unlikely to contest them after what will be a decade as prime minister (and with his eye on his own legacy after what’s been a disappointing decade in terms of policy achievement), there’s a chance for rapid progress on a lasting détente between India and Pakistan. That’s not to say that over half a century of tension over the contested Indian occupation of Jammu and Kashmir province will evaporate overnight, but to the extent that Sharif and Singh can put Pakistan and India on a path to more normalized relations, it’s a win-win-win: a win for Pakistan, a win for security throughout south Asia and a win for global security. That alone would be a significant achievement for the next Sharif government.
Sharif understands that the path to securities ultimately lies in improving Pakistan’s economy
Sharif has also indicated that he is serious about attempting the kind of economic reforms that he began to implement in the early 1990s to swing Pakistan’s economy around. It’s inconceivable to believe that Pakistan could transform from basketcase to showcase in half a decade, but the economy remains so poor right now — the country’s plagued with inflation, a chronic energy crisis, low levels of investment, massive unemployment, poverty and lack of development — that it’s hard to believe Sharif, who worked to develop Pakistan’s infrastructure in the 1990s, won’t have at least some success. A better economy means more opportunities for everyone in Pakistan, which should be a fundamental component of any security strategy for the country.