Nawaz Sharif is the strongest contender for prime minister as Pakistan heads to the polls Saturday. The twice-elected prime minister's career has been rocky, complete with economic wins and exile.
Nawaz Sharif, a twice-elected prime minister, is widely seen as the leading contender for the prime minister slot in Pakistan after the May 11 general elections. If elected, he could represent a swing away from the decades-long hold the military has had over the civilian government.
In a 1988 interview, a young Mr. Sharif on the campaign trail said that he admired the late Pakistani general-turned-dictator Zia-ul-Haq. “He had done some very good work in the country. He set very good precedents in the politics of the country which had a very healthy impact.”
Twenty-five years later, Mr. Sharif – the head of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) - is no longer publicly admiring army chiefs. If anything, he’s been pointedly reminding Pakistanis of something that might be considered obvious: The powerful Pakistan Army is actually headed by the prime minister – not the other way around.
That truth – as per Pakistan’s Constitution – is still a controversial thing to say out loud. But Sharif, who has battled with three army chiefs in his tenures as prime minister, has promised to make sure the military knows its place.
“Sharif’s focus is the economy and how to transform it,” says Sohail Warraich, one of the country’s foremost commentators on politics and the author of a book on Sharif called, “Who’s the traitor?” A major reason for his conflict with the military came when Sharif decided to make amends with India. “When [Sharif] came to the realization that ‘until we come to peace with India, there can’t be any progress in the economy’… there was bound to be a disagreement with the military.”
Sharif, a scion of an industrialist Punjabi family, has had a long, rocky political career, serving as chief minister of the Punjab Province, and twice as the country’s prime minister, from 1990-1993 and 1997-1999.
Though he was known and applauded for his economic liberalization policies, Sharif was never able to complete a full term. His years in power were marked by poor governance, allegations of corruption, political battles, and a military coup.
After Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998 in response to India’s nuclear tests, the brief moment of nationalistic, jingoistic joy that looked set to make him a national hero for the history books, turned into panic when international sanctions and a freeze on foreign currency accounts hit the country. A year later, a war with India in Kargil turned into another political disaster for Sharif and his eventual attempt to fire the Army chief – Gen. Pervez Musharraf – backfired when the Army organized a quick coup (Sharif recently called for a probe into the 1999 Kargil war, further ruffling military feathers).
Warraich says that the air of a “huge patriot” that Sharif believed he had achieved after the 1998 nuclear tests, was decimated in the Kargil war. “The patriot became a traitor,” he says. “He had to go to the US and ask for insurance for his life.”
But after eight years in exile, Sharif returned to Pakistan, quickly rebuilt his fractured party, and won a majority of seats in Punjab, where the majority of the population lives.
He’s also setting himself up for a figurative fight with the Pakistani military. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani recently dismissed the idea that Pakistan has been dragged into a US war, while Sharif has said he wants to open dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban, carefully avoiding condemning the group.
Zulfiqar A. Balti, Sharif’s personal photographer who once worked for the Bhuttos before switching to Sharif, describes his employer as a caring father who didn’t push his children to join politics (though his daughter, Maryam has been dabbling in politics for the past few years, while his wife Kulsoom campaigned for him when he was imprisoned by Musharraf) and donates generously – and anonymously – to funding healthcare for patients with cancer.
“There is a humbleness about him that attracts people,” Mr. Balti says, who hovers by Sharif’s shoulder as he addresses rallies and press conferences. “And he has a lot of patience," Balti says.
That the two warring politicians of the 1990s – Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – put their differences aside to forge an agreement (called the Charter of Democracy) was a major breakthrough for Pakistani politics. Balti punctuates his point by several anecdotes of how Sharif forgave and forgot many who defected from the PML-N, or how he dealt with the PPP.
For all of Sharif’s perceived civility, there’s also a shadow that follows him.
Reports that his party garnered support from the banned anti-Shiite group, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, in the last general election and his own vague stance on militancy have turned off voters and made his party the target of intense criticism.
"This is my personal view, but every time the PML-N is in government there have been injustices." said Father Ashraf Gill of the Catholic Church in Gujranwala. Gill rattles off a number of attacks on Christians during the PML-N's government in Punjab. Gill, who credits the interim government in Punjab with having played a positive role in preventing a major attack on his church this April, said: "If the PML-N had been in government then and these terrorists were around, we would have been ruined too."
Sharif has managed to stave off the criticism by one about-turn: pulling Sheikh Waqas Akram into the party, a former Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid legislator who is strongly opposed to the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan in the Jhang district. The Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan chief Ahmed Ludhianvi said that he was "still angry with the PML-N" over the move. "I gave a file on Akram to Nawaz Sharif myself and I was promised that they would never get him on board."
But even now, with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf nipping at the heels of Nawaz Sharif’s tiger – the party’s election symbol – the consensus among many voters in Punjab, even those who aren't supporting him, is that “Nawaz Sharif will win."
It’s still too soon to know how many National Assembly seats Sharif’s party will win – or whether he can serve for a third time as Pakistan’s prime minister. Estimates for seats range from 80 to 100 (a party needs 172 seats for majority), which could put PML-N in the lead to form a coalition and the next government.
But the fight remains wildly unpredictable, however, which has rattled the PML-N. After all, until a few months ago, the election was all but Sharif’s. And Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which emerged in 2011 as a viable rival for the “throne of Lahore,” was mired in infighting. A recent resurgence of Khan’s PTI, however – manifested in the large rallies it has held in Punjab in the final stretch to the elections – appears to have begun to put significant momentum behind Khan.
And even if Sharif manages to defy the pundits and Khan’s supporters, there is a long battle ahead and many opponents along the way: the militants waging war in the tribal areas, an upper house of parliament controlled by the PPP, and most importantly, the military, which still holds most of the keys to ensuring a five-year term in government.