The outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) coalition was inept and corrupt, and failed to revive Pakistan’s economy. It was also perceived as too close to the United States and rather secular (not Islamic enough). This provided adequate justification for the Taliban to bomb many PPP election rallies and kill numerous officials from the PPP and its allies.
PML-N’s support base comprises the Pakistani lower-middle class, small traders and big business. In contrast, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Imran Khan, the poster boy of the Western media, is supported by young, educated people from the upper-middle class. The PTI, which was unrepresented in the last parliament, will be the third-largest party this time around, with 35-plus seats.
PML-N’s and PTI’s success is due to their links with extremist Islamist groups and the extent to which anti-Americanism has permeated every strata of Pakistani society. It is no coincidence that Imran Khan’s PTI, a one-man band since its inception in 1996, won most of its seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and has formed the provincial government there. Khyber Paktunkhwa is a Taliban stronghold and borders Afghanistan. The PTI could only form government there with the tacit support of Islamist extremists.
About 95 per cent of the seats won by PML-N are from Punjab, a province that is fast radicalising under the influence of Wahhabism, a stern Islamic sect noted for its extreme conservatism. Punjab is the main recruiting ground for most of Pakistan’s major terrorist outfits.
In the campaign, both Imran and Sharif argued US drones facilitated and lent fuel to Pakistan’s Islamic insurgency. It is true the country has lost many lives to war, but Sharif and Khan fail to mention the role Pakistan has played over the last four decades in fuelling Islamist militants: almost all Pakistan’s terrorist groups have been created, trained, financed and sheltered by the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — the military’s intelligence arm.
Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other terrorist groups were created by General Hamid Gul, who headed the ISI when General Zia ul-Haq was in power. It is widely believed that General Gul still wields enormous influence on these groups; he is also reported to be very close to Imran Khan. The Sharif family, meanwhile, have supported terrorists and provided state funds to such organisations for years. Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz is chief minister of Punjab; Wikileaks revealed his administration tipped off Lashkar-e-Taiba about impending UN sanctions — allowing it to clean out its bank accounts before being raided. Shahbaz’s own budget figures released in 2010, show he gave nearly US$1.2 million to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity front of Lashkar-e-Taiba. And the Shahbaz government has released many suspected terrorists from jail, including Malik Ishaq, a founder of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which is closely allied to al-Qaeda and a major player in domestic terrorism.
With the election of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s already shaky commitment to fight terrorism is likely to weaken further. Even mainstream Muslim sects like the Shias may face greater persecution, as Wahhabis do not consider certain sects, like the Ahmadiyyas, to be Muslims.
Religious parties have traditionally supported the Sharif brothers because they support the introduction of Sharia laws. Despite its strong majority, PML-N has invited Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam to join the government. This new coalition partner is a hard line, conservative, pro-Sharia, Islamist party with close links with the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood, and arguably some links with al-Qaeda.
Nawaz Sharif’s election will make the fight against militant Islamists and the dissemination of secular liberal values more difficult. It may also lead to greater Taliban influence in Pakistan and instability in Afghanistan.
But the United States and its Western allies have three things on their side. First, the Pakistani army sees the fight against domestic terrorism as its own. Second, Pakistan’s economy is mired in a debt trap, and China is reluctant to help. Before Sharif can introduce any meaningful economic reform, he will need to negotiate a loan from the IMF. Third, Sharif needs to introduce some tax-collecting measures as part of any economic reform package. Most eligible people do not pay any tax: making them start will dent Sharif’s popularity. With challenges confronting Nawaz Sharif on economic, internal security and many other fronts, in order to stabilise his administration, he needs allies who wield considerable influence on the international stage and have deep pockets.
Dr Vidya Sharma is an advisor on country risk management and inter-country joint ventures.