ISLAMABAD -- The victory of Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections will usher in a new period in Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, with Secretary of State John Kerry likely to assume the lead role in relations long dominated by the Pentagon.
Sharif, a right-of-center moderate, is expected to take charge of Pakistan’s foreign and security policy, traditionally the exclusive territory of the country’s military, which has ruled Pakistan for half its 65-year history, Pakistani analysts said.
Saturday’s election marked the first time Pakistan has successfully transitioned from one full-term democratic government to another.
“The civilian government has had practically no say in foreign and security policy since 1977,” when Gen. Mohammad Zia ul Haq staged the third of four military coups, said Suhail Warraich, the political editor of Geo News, Pakistan’s leading cable channel. “That will change now.”
Warraich believes Sharif, who himself was toppled in a 1999 coup during a previous term as prime minister, will be unwilling to let the military maintain its primacy in foreign affairs. “Sharif will impose the writ of the civilian government and will initially try to gently push the military into accepting it. But if there’s any resistance, he won’t accept it,” he said.
Sharif twice served as prime minister in the 1990s, before being overthrown by Gen. Pervez Musharraf in an October 1999 coup and exiled to Saudi Arabia.
During the second term, he worked closely with the administration of President Bill Clinton to resolve crises with India – first in May 1998, when the South Asian rivals conducted tit-for-tat nuclear test explosions, and then in the summer of 1999, when Pakistan’s army launched an unauthorized covert operation along the disputed Kashmir border with India that brought the countries to the brink of war.
As first lady, Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea made several private visits to Pakistan during Sharif’s government from 1997 to 1999. She met frequently with Sharif in his capacity as opposition leader after becoming secretary of state in 2009. Clinton is known to enjoy close relations with him.
Sharif is also known to get on well with Kerry, the new secretary of state, who co-piloted the November 2009 legislation in Congress under which the United States provides Pakistan $1.5 billion in civilian aid every year, up to 2014.
Kerry is a known figure in Pakistan and quite popular for his willingness to listen to Pakistan’s side of the story on matters such as U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where the Taliban is based. He toured frequently as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is remembered for shedding tears of sympathy for the 20 million Pakistanis rendered homeless by devastating floods in August 2010.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party clearly emerged as the victor in a general election that attracted record numbers of voters.
It came close to winning a majority of the 272 directly elected seats in the national assembly, polling about four times as many seats as the next most popular parties, and will form a government later this week with the help of independent members.
The outgoing government of the Pakistan People’s Party, led in all but name by Asif Ali Zardari, the president, was soundly humiliated, losing 90 of the 125 seats it won in the last general election in February 2008. Zardari’s former coalition partners also suffered reversals in what was a rejection of the Zardari government’s dismal record.