Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, June 2013 (Reuters)

July 31, 2013

The Future of Pakistan: What to Expect from Nawaz Sharif's New Government



This report examines the policies, statements and makeup of the recently elected Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party in Pakistan in order to determine its likely future direction and to gauge the impact of its policies on Pakistan, the region, and its relations with the U.S.

The PML-N government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was elected to power on May 11, 2013. The new government faces a number of serious challenges to national stability, ranging from an energy and economic crisis to a persistent and lethal Taliban insurgency. Sharif's government has so far shown enthusiasm for addressing only a subset of the country's major issues. 

Nawaz Sharif's political agenda can be broken down into three overarching sections: the economy, encompassing the country's energy crisis, macroeconomic stability and foreign energy imports; foreign relations, encompassing rapprochement with India and engaging with the U.S. and Afghanistan; and domestic security, encompassing Pakistan's Taliban insurgency and civil-military relations.

The PML-N government has so far focused, and continues to focus, primarily on energy and economic issues, almost to the exclusion of all others. It sees progress on this front as the source of its political legitimacy and the primary yardstick for judging its own success. 

The PML-N government's primary focus has been to shorten the duration of lengthy, often nationwide, power shortages that are cutting into productivity; secure a fresh bailout package from the International Monetary Fund to prevent a national default on foreign debt; and to restructure and privatize loss-generating and overly subsidized state-owned enterprises and power producers.

The government is looking to import foreign sources of energy but, despite public pronouncements to the contrary, is unlikely to continue pursuing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project that it inherited from the previous government due to fears over U.S. sanctions and the program's own unfeasibility.

The Sharif government plans on vastly expanding ties with India. It sees improved relations with India not only as a ready source of additional revenue, but also as a means to assert itself in the realm of foreign policy that has thus far been dominated by Pakistan's military establishment. 

Despite loud protestations against U.S. drone strikes, the government aims to adopt a pragmatic approach to engaging with the U.S. on bilateral issues and on matters relating to the future of Afghanistan. It will struggle to shape policy vis-à-vis the U.S. and Afghanistan, however, given that Pakistan's army continues to dominate the decision-making process on that front.

The PML-N's near-complete focus on economic and energy issues is reflective of an unwillingness to comprehensively address domestic militancy, primarily militancy carried out by Pakistan's main insurgent group, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The government has issued contradictory signals, indicating both a willingness to talk to the TTP and to formulate a new national security policy that is tough on terrorism. It has made no decisive efforts in either direction despite numerous deadly attacks by the TTP and its allies across the country since the government took power. 

While the Pakistani military has indicated an unwillingness to negotiate with the TTP, and a desire to take on the group militarily, concerns over entangling friendly militant proxies in Pakistan's tribal areas during any such operation means it is not likely to take serious action until some sort of peace agreement is reached in Afghanistan.

The Sharif government is looking to correct Pakistan's historic imbalance in civil-military relations. To this end, Sharif has structured his government in order to prevent Pakistan's powerful army from playing senior civilian leaders off of each other. While Sharif is not looking to openly oppose the army, he will try to chip away at the army's hold on power by opposing it on policy issues on which the government enjoys popular support, such as engagement with India.

The government's strong mandate at the ballot box and progress on the economic and energy fronts mean it currently holds the political capital to forge policy unopposed. This capital will diminish, and the government's capacity to drive its political agenda will evaporate, the longer it waits to address Pakistan's other serious maladies, however.

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