Internal, External Challenges for Pakistan’s New Premier

Nawaz Sharif has said little about how he plans to deal with Islamist militancy in his country.

For the first time in its independent history, Pakistan witnessed a democratic transition of power last week. Despite Taliban bombings and scattered gun violence, millions turned out to vote in a powerful demonstration of democracy. That in itself was extraordinary, even if the outcome was unsurprising.

Opinion polls had predicted a conservative Pakistan Muslim League victory since February. The outgoing People’s Party government was marred in corruption scandals while former cricket player Imran Khan’s anti-establishment party proved unable to stage a major win based on the charisma of one man, winning even less seats than the former ruling party.

Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif is expected to return to the premiership after serving in the office twice in the 1990s. While he was groomed under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime in the 1980s, he had a bitter experience with the army while he was last in power. He handpicked Pervez Musharraf as army chief who subsequently led a coup against him. Sharif was exiled to Saudi Arabia but returned in 2007 and has been critical of the army since whenever there were rumors of political interference.

While he might not face too much obstructionism from the army, Sharif has many other security challenges to deal with. Communal and sectarian violence has risen in recent years. The outgoing administration tried to alleviate the situation by addressing the grievances of Pakistan’s minorities. It renamed the North West Frontier Province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in accordance with the wishes of the Pashtun majority there and pushed for greater investment in Balochistan, the southernmost region of Pakistan that has economically been neglected by the Punjab center.

Sharif, by contrast, is seen as a supporter of the “Punjabization” of Pakistan. He will have to prove that perception wrong if he is to avoid more political unrest.

The next government’s tenure will likely see the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, due in 2014. How this will affect the complicated relationship between the two Muslim countries is difficult to predict.

Many of Pakistan’s internal security problems have their roots in Afghanistan. The border region is a hotbed of insurgency. American drone airstrikes against suspected insurgents and terrorists in the frontier area have fueled anti-Western sentiment in the latter country and boosted support for both Imran Khan’s centrists and militant Islamist groups. Yet Sharif has given little indication of how he plans to address the situation.

Sharif’s previous stint as prime minister suggests that he will likely continue the incumbent government’s India policy. At the time, his attempts to improve relations were thwarted by the army which started a small war in the Kargil district of Kashmir. After winning Saturday’s election, he promised to take up the process where he left it. The onus is therefore on India: how will it react to Sharif’s overtures?