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Nawaz Sharif: Back in the game - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Pakistan's incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves to his party's newly elected MPs in Lahore on May 20, 2013 (AFP PHOTO / ARIF ALI)

Pakistan’s incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves to his party’s newly elected MPs in Lahore on May 20, 2013 (AFP PHOTO / ARIF ALI)

Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat—In the first week of June, a triumphant Nawaz Sharif will re-enter the prime minister’s house in Islamabad, Pakistan, to re assume his position as chief executive of the country—his third time at the helm.

Sharif has often told his close associates that he has very bitter memories of that place. After all, it cannot be easy for an elected prime minister to forget the day he was arrested by the military: October 12, 1999.

Late that evening, five army generals entered the drawing room of the prime minister’s house, where Sharif was using the phone. They demanded that Sharif, then serving his second term as prime minister, withdraw the decision he had issued earlier that day to remove the Chief of Army Staff, General Pervez Musharraf, from his post. When he refused, the army generals arrested him and sent him to Attock Fort on the outskirts of Islamabad, where he spent a year in solitary confinement.

In the year 2000, Nawaz Sharif was sent into exile in Saudi Arabia by Musharraf’s military government. Most people believed that Sharif’s decision to accept exile was the end of his political career—but he proved them wrong.

For Sharif, renewed political success came gradually. He barged back into Pakistani politics at the end of 2007, when Musharraf’s political strength was declining. In 2008, he failed to secure a clear victory in the parliamentary elections and was compelled to sit alongside the opposition. However, “he remained one of the most influential politicians after his return to Pakistan,” according to eminent political analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi.

The clearest marker of his return came recently, during the May parliamentary elections, when his party won more than 126 seats in the national assembly. “We are now able to form the government on our own and without anybody’s support—but we will take everybody along,” said Ahsan Iqbal, senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League headed by Sharif and a close associate of the prime minister.

“Nawaz Sharif has seen so many ups and down in his political career, from his role as prime minister, to his time in jail, to exile in Jeddah, to his return to Pakistani politics, and finally his return to the prime minister’s house again,” said Fasih Ur Rehman, resident editor of the Nation newspaper in Islamabad.

One of the most enduring features of Nawaz Sharif’s political career is his fluctuating relations with the military. He began his career as a military protege but later developed an independent political approach; he was prosecuted by the military during the Musharraf coup. He is now attempting to forge smooth relations with top military figures: the prime minister recently invited the current chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, to his residence in Lahore, where the two had a three-hour discussion about regional security.

Pakistani political analysts say that Nawaz Sharif will have to build a consensus with military leaders regarding two key foreign policy issues. First, Sharif will have to gain the approval of the military in order to improve relations with India, as he wishes to do. Second, both the military and Sharif will have to work hard to reach a consensus over the situation in Afghanistan, given that the withdrawal of American troops will begin in 2014.

SHARIF WAS BORN in Lahore on December 25, 1949, to a wealthy family of industrialists and businessmen. His father, Mian Sharif, and his six uncles controlled and operated an iron foundry in Amritsar, Indian Punjab. The family moved to Pakistan at the time of independence from British rule.

He received his bachelor’s degree in law from the Punjab University Law College in Lahore and helped establish the Ittefaq Islamic Academy, where students received religious instruction in addition to their secular training. Most of his family friends describe Nawaz Sharif as a devout and practicing Muslim; he was brought up among his highly religious extended family under the watchful eyes of his strict and devout father, Mian Sharif.

Family sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that as a young man, Sharif successfully expanded the family business. However, the Sharif family lost their industrial business during the nationalization process launched by Prime Minister Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto—the father of Benazir Bhutto—in 1972.

Losing the family business was, perhaps, the single biggest influence on Sharif as a young man. “Nawaz Sharif learned some bitter lessons from the nationalization policies of Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto when his family lost all their fortunes,” said a family friend.

Sharif started his political career as a protege of army generals and emerged as an alternative figure to the populist leader Benazir Bhutto. Sharif first rose to national prominence when he was brought into the provincial government of Punjab by General Zia-ul-Haq and the former chief of Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt. Gen. Ghulam Jilani, where he served first as a finance minister, and later on, as chief minister.

In 1981, Sharif was appointed finance minister of Punjab Province by the Zia government. “He used his new found political authority to promote his pro-business stance and presented four successive development-oriented budgets targeting the improvement of socio-economic conditions in rural areas,” said Furrukh Saeed Khawaja, chief reporter of the daily Nawaiwaqt newspaper, who has closely followed Sharif’s political career.

Nawaz Sharif first became prime minister in 1990, while leading the Islamic Democratic Alliance, a coalition of right-wing political parties that defeated Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party. When Sharif was dismissed by a presidential order in 1993, his rival, Benazir Bhutto, replaced him as the head of government. Sharif became the prime minister again in 1997, with a comfortable majority.

AFTER HIS RETURN to politics, Sharif made it clear that he was changing past traditions that involved siding with the military and conspiring against his political opponents with the help of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.

“We signed a charter of democracy with Benazir Bhutto and other political leaders in London and it was clearly stated in the document that from now on we would not join hands with the army to come to power in Pakistan. We would not negotiate with the army or the intelligence agencies,” said Ahsan Iqbal, a member of the National Assembly, to Asharq Al-Awsat.

Pakistani political commentators say that Sharif’s populism first became evident in 1993, when, as prime minister, he challenged the military-backed president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, and made an attempt to weaken president’s powers through a constitutional amendment. Sharif was dismissed by President Khan and parliament was dissolved—but it did not stop Sharif from gaining political strength by defying the incumbent president, which at the time was a rare occurrence.

Sharif dominated Pakistan’s political landscape during the 1990s—he had convincing majorities in the houses of parliament, and his brother was the chief minister of Punjab, the largest province. He used this new found power and support to repeatedly challenge the military and military-backed presidents. Not only did he survive these confrontations, he also gained political strength by adopting anti-military postures.

As prime minister, he was responsible for the downfall of two presidents: Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1993 and Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari in 1997. He was also in disputes with four successive army chiefs from 1990 to 1999 about different policy issues; one of them was forced to resign when he publicly contested Sharif on a policy matter. In 1998, Nawaz Sharif had a falling out with the chief justice at the time, Sajjad Ali Shah, which resulted in a power struggle in which Sharif prevailed. Both the chief justice and the president at the time, Farooq Leghari, were forced to resign.

But his emergent desire to control the army eventually caused his downfall: in October 1999 he unsuccessfully attempted to dismiss General Musharraf from his position of army chief while he was on a tour of Sri Lanka. The generals of Pakistan’s army refused to accept the dismissal of their chief, especially as it came within a year of Sharif forcing another chief of army staff, General Jehangir Karamt, to resign over a contentious policy issue.

“The October 1999 coup was a response to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s attempt to divide the top commanders of the army and control the army by replacing chief general Pervez Musharraf with a junior officer who was loyal to Sharif,” says Hassan Askari Rizvi, a prominent political analyst and author of the book titled Military, state and society in Pakistan.

Political analysts say that there was nothing in Nawaz Sharif’s political career that could have predicted that he would eventually adopt an anti-military stance in Pakistani politics: a member of the politically docile class of industrialists, he began his political career as pupil of army generals.

DESPITE THE DOMINANT POSITION he held in Pakistani politics before the military coup in 1999, Sharif’s career entered a period of stagnation in 2000, when he agreed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia. He disappointed many of his political supporters by accepting safe exile while many of his associates suffered in the jails of Pakistan’s military government.

It is not clear what supporters can expect of Nawaz Sharif’s third term as prime minister. In addition to his unusual rejection of the military in Pakistani politics, he has long promoted non-traditional domestic and foreign policy positions.

Extending a hand of friendship to India was one of his unusual foreign policy moves. “It is strange paradox that Nawaz Sharif gets most of his political support from Punjab, which is a hotbed of anti-India sentiments, and still gathered the courage to start normalization procedures with India when he was prime minister from 1997 to 1999” said Nasir Zaidi, a research scholar at Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad.

While in power in the 1990s, Sharif built a strong support base among the growing middle classes of Pakistan by increasing employment and education. He was often criticized for bold initiatives, such as a scheme providing unemployed youth with installment loans to run imported taxis.

Most of Sharif’s past reforms were aimed at deregulating and liberalizing the economy. He quickly dismantled the socialist-style economy by selling off inefficient and bankrupt state enterprises, opening the stock market to foreign capital, and loosening foreign exchange restrictions. Sharif’s industrialist background and the liberal economic policies of his past governments make him appealing to the politically influential business and trading classes in the country.

Liberal elements in Pakistani politics have often accused Sharif of making secret deals with religious extremists and sectarian parties. But now, he is returning to power in Islamabad at a time when Pakistan is in a state of war against religious extremists and militants. (Pakistan’s military base has already made it clear that operations against militants will continue.) It will not be possible for Nawaz Sharif to be lenient towards the militants, although he has previously expressed desire to initiate talks with the Taliban.