Why the U.S. can be happy about Pakistan's elections

Nawaz Sharif, the country's likely prime minister, has a history of pandering to Islamic extremists. So what's to celebrate?

Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, celebrate their party's victory in Lahore, Pakistan, May 12.
(Image credit: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif moved quickly Monday to form a new government, after his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party came out on top in elections this weekend. The elections mark the first time in the country's 66-year history that one civilian government will peacefully transfer power to another, but Sharif's likely return has many analysts worried, given his previous government's penchant for pandering to Islamic extremist groups that have threatened to unravel Pakistan's democracy altogether. Does that mean Sharif's apparent victory spells trouble ahead?

On first glance, it would seem so. In addition to trying to implement Sharia law nationwide, Sharif's previous government was marked by Pakistan's first nuclear tests, a near-war with India, and rampant corruption. It ended in a bloodless military coup in 1999 that resulted in the ascendance of General Pervez Musharraf and many years of exile for Sharif. "But in a place with more than its share of bloodshed and tragedy, Sharif's rise can be seen as an auspicious sign," says Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic:

Not only has [Sharif] started speaking out on some of the issues most important to Pakistan's future, but he will be taking power at a time of near-unprecedented consensus in favor of civilian authority in Pakistan. The military, which is infamous for actually controlling the country’s destiny and interfering with civilian governance, has merely sat back and watched. This weekend's steps towards civilian control are not nearly sufficient to solve Pakistan’s problems — militancy, terrorism, a disturbingly large nuclear arsenal, constant electricity shortages, poor relations with its neighbors — but they are necessary. [The New Republic]

Another reason for optimism: Much of Sharif's campaign focused on fixing Pakistan's shattered economy, which he "repeatedly pledged to rebuild, to pull out of the morass," says Abbas Nasir in Pakistan's Dawn:

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Regional peace and stability are a prerequisite for Pakistan to prosper. The prime minister-to-be, being a business-industrial tycoon, must know this better than anyone else. The earlier on in his tenure the tone is set the better.His recent interviews such as the one given to Dawn's Cyril Almeida, showed he has not only thought about these issues more than other leaders but has also a firm idea on how to proceed. This can only be good. [Dawn]

And while he has troubling relationships with Islamic extremist groups, "nobody has ever accused Sharif, himself, of being an extremist," says Emily Cadei at Foreign Policy. His campaign went to great lengths to stress his track record of cooperating with Washington.

Sharif's senior advisors have... taken pains to highlight the party's longstanding partnership with the United States, including their boss's close relationship with former President Bill Clinton during his time in office. The message: Sharif is a known quantity to U.S. policymakers, as opposed to, say, Pakistani cricket icon Imran Khan, who has publicly threatened to shoot down U.S. drones if elected prime minister. [Foreign Policy]

Some analysts, however, say the focus on Sharif is misplaced. That Pakistanis braved the polls despite a spate of attacks by the Pakistani Taliban is cause enough for celebration. "Take the most basic statistic: A voter turnout of 60 per cent, the highest in nearly 40 years, and that in an environment prickling with dangers," says Adnan Khan in the Toronto Globe and Mail. "That the election happened at all is a testament to the courage of Pakistanis and their desire to take control of their collective destiny."

This election, more than the previous one and certainly more than the sham elections I covered under the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf, exhibited all of the signs of a vibrant democracy in the making.The challenges are many, but a step forward has been made, a step away from terminal collapse and toward something approaching a better future. Now the real work begins. [Globe and Mail]

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.