But now, they say, there’s a new Sharif: a mature statesman who is the best choice to lead his crisis-prone country at a time when its seesaw alliance with the United States is more vital than ever to combating Islamist extremism and ending the war in Afghanistan.
Some analysts say Sharif, 63, emerged chastened and mellower after his fall from power in a 1999 military coup, a humiliating stint in prison and several years in exile. If his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, wins the most seats in Parliament and he again becomes premier, they say, he is likely to maintain cordial relations with Washington and tread gingerly with Pakistan’s powerful military, while first bearing down on his country’s serious economic woes.
Born into wealth, Sharif is a free-market advocate whose return to office would delight Pakistani businessmen, who are reeling from years of energy shortages that have threatened to destroy several industrial sectors. His pledges to end power blackouts and natural gas shortages play well in places such as the major eastern city of Lahore — the capital of Sharif’s stronghold, Punjab province — where electricity goes off up to 15 hours a day.
“I know the problems of Pakistan better than anyone does,” Sharif told supporters last week at a rally in Sheikhupura, a factory city outside Lahore. “A mistake on May 11 will take Pakistan very far from progress.”
Concerns for military, U.S.
Sharif has been a force in politics for 30 years, joined at the hip with his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who just wrapped up five years as chief minister of Punjab, doling out development funds and public projects to secure his brother’s base. But even with their massive machine, Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to win an outright majority of seats in Parliament and will probably have to broker a coalition.
Sharif, a religious conservative whom critics describe as soft on militant groups, also has promised to recalibrate Pakistan’s counterterrorism partnership with the United States, which many Pakistanis want to see severed.
Sharif has long advocated civilian supremacy over the military, which remains the dominant force in Pakistan’s foreign policy and national security. The generals have always been wary of him, even more so now because of his recent calls to take Pakistan out of the U.S. battle against Islamist extremists, including those sheltering on Pakistani soil.
But Pakistan’s military is different today than 14 years ago, when then-army chief Pervez Musharraf toppled Sharif. Its current leader, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, says he is committed to democracy, and Musharraf is under house arrest in Islamabad, facing charges related to his autocratic rule after an ill-
advised bid to join this year’s race.