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How Nawaz Sharif can win the day after elections

The 2013 election was billed as the most important and most historic in Pakistan’s short and oft-interrupted experience of being a democracy. It is safe to say that the performance of the Pakistani people on May 11, 2013 has lived up to the grandness of the moment. Turnout, when it is officially announced, will likely exceed sixty percent. This is historic.

The results have confirmed the entry of an incredibly powerful new epicentre of political energy in the form of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Perhaps most importantly, the results have also confirmed that performance matters – the PPP has never really been able to lose the label of being less competent at governance, and more able to create and sustain clarity about democratic institutions.

But elections are not just about reconfirming a framework for governance (such as democracy), they are also a chance to articulate a vision of what people’s neighbourhoods and cities will look like five, ten and twenty years from now. Here, the PML-N has a track record and the PPP has an Achilles heel. This election showed that the perception that you can actually deliver is a powerful electoral aphrodisiac. Roads, highways and public transportation systems matter. They matter all over the world, across all eras, and all ideologies. The 2013 election reconfirmed this.

Now that the election is over, it is important to be clear about what Pakistan needs. What it does not need, is a honeymoon period for the PML-N government. The PML-N has the most impressive line-up of experienced managers and planners. Three immediate and major tests await the PML-N on Monday, May 13, 2013. The first is the test of federalism and national cohesion. The second is the test of the budget and the economy. The third is the test of the interior function, and the resultant clarity on relations with Afghanistan. They must pass all of them with flying colours, to give Pakistanis the confidence that this time, it will be different.

First, the PML-N has to form a government respectful and cognisant of Pakistan’s linguistic, ethnic, geographic and socio-economic diversity. It can choose not to do this, but doing so would be a disaster for federalism in Pakistan. The smaller, losing parties know this, and they have wasted no time in going for the jugular.

Altaf Hussain has congratulated Nawaz Sharif for winning Punjab, fulfilling a twenty-year-old rallying cry. Altaf Bhai knows exactly what he’s doing. He, the ANP and particularly the PPP will use the dominance of the Sharifs in Punjab to colour everything the PML-N does as an ethnically driven ‘jaaga Punjaabi jaaga’ victory cry. So how can Sharif neutralise this threat?

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sharif should offer the entire bench strength of the PML-N in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the PTI as a part of government, without asking anything in return. This magnanimity will make whatever government is formed there more stable, and secure. And it would be a nice start to what will eventually have to be cooperation between the PTI and the rest of Pakistan’s political parties (most of whom the PTI has spent years lambasting as being unpatriotic, corrupt and unworthy of anything but opprobrium).

In Balochistan, Sharif should engage at least three groups (that include both Baloch and Pakhtun power centres in the province) in talks to form government, and he should promise that government two things from Islamabad – a massive increase in civilian law enforcement capacity, and a long, long fiscal leash.

In Sindh, Sharif must find a way to convince the PPP and the MQM that a broad province-wide coalition is necessary. To do this, he’ll need to walk back the PML-F from the innate anti-Bhuttoism of that strand of the Sindhi discourse. But anything less will pit pro-Sharif forces in Sindh versus the PPP. And this would be a terrible blow to the ability of the federal government to get things done.

We must remember that not only is the PPP still a force, with at least 35 seats, but it is also the single largest party in the Senate and it does still control the figurehead office of the president of Pakistan.

Next, Sharif must not tinker with the balance of electricity distribution and he must spare not a single opportunity to remind the country that he has made that decision. Any noticeable surge in loadshedding in other provinces, combined with a decrease in Punjab will be a delicious target for PML-N opponents in the smaller provinces, where Mian Sahib has no political capital to spare.

In Punjab, he has a stay of execution. He can afford to expend some of that capital to pursue greater intimacy with Sindh, Karachi and, to an extent, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Finally, in pursuit of a national narrative of togetherness Nawaz Sharif has to find a way, somehow, to include ANP leaders in the federal government. The ANP was wiped out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, mostly because their leaders spent five years being cynical, feckless and, too often, corrupt. But it is also a party that has sacrificed tremendously, and a party that is a vital cog in the bloodstream of Pakistani pluralism. National politics without the ANP is more insipid, less inspired than it is with. The political and intellectual descendants of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan must not be left out in the cold.

The second big test is the budget. The easy way out will be to pick up the documents prepared by the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Finance and make an apologetic speech in June announcing the budget. One early test of whether the PML-N will choose the easy way out, or whether it will act boldly will be its choice of finance minister and his advisers.

Ishaq Dar is a widely respected and highly competent candidate, but he has been finance minister before. If the PML-N goes with the tried and tested, it will be sending the wrong signal to young Pakistanis – that their mocking of the PML-N as ‘Purana Pakistan’ is not off the mark.

The more difficult path will be for the PML-N to pass a budget that makes major and difficult policy decisions: less subsidies, more taxes and a clearly articulated plan to reduce instead of increase long-term liabilities on the federal and provincial systems. The bonus in pursuing such a budget will be the ease such a budget will create in arguing with the IMF and other creditors for another big loan (almost a foregone conclusion at this stage).

Finally, the third big test is how the PML-N approaches the interior ministry function. If the first document the next interior minister drafts is a national counterterrorism strategy, it will signify seriousness about the PML-N’s intent to make Pakistan a safe place to live, especially for Pakistanis in Fata, Karachi and Balochistan. Yet, such a statement will not be independent of implications for national security, civil military relations, and most importantly foreign policy.

A safer Pakistan must necessarily help create a safer Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s leaders, including the volatile President Karzai, are nervous and scared of what the future holds. They need reassurance that Pakistan has turned a corner and wants to support Afghans in what they seek for Afghanistan.

A strong, free, autonomous and assertive Afghanistan that is confident about Pakistan’s intentions is good for Pakistan’s economy and its democracy. That is the single most important lesson from the last decade. If the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif demonstrate that they understand this, the world will embrace this kind-of-new Pakistan more confidently. The confidence of the world helps create jobs and opportunities for the people of a country – and for this reason, should be a vital priority for Nawaz Sharif.

The writer is an analyst and commentator. www.mosharrafzaidi.com

Mosharraf Zaidi, "How Nawaz Sharif can win the day after elections," The News. 2013-05-13.
Keywords: Political science , Political parties , Government-Pakistan , Political leaders , Political process , Politics-Pakistan , National issues , Elections-Pakistan , Policy making , Foreign policy , Elections 2013 , Democracy , Loadshedding , Altaf Hussain , Nawaz Sharif , Ishaq Dar , Abdul Ghaffar Khan , Pakistan , Khyber Pakhtunkhwa , Afghanistan , Islamabad , Karachi , PPP , PMLN , PTI , MQM , PMLF , ANP , IMF , FATA