© Carol Mitchell

Will Nawaz Sharif negotiate with the Taliban?

Pakistan's new Prime Minister faces two key challenges
May 22, 2013

Nawaz Sharif (top right), the "Lion of Punjab," has been elected Prime Minister of Pakistan © Carol Mitchell

On Saturday 11th May, Pakistan went to the polls. It was the first time in the country’s history that one elected government handed over to another, but the results offered little new. The voters have returned power to Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), making him the first person in the country’s history to hold the office of Prime Minister three times.

During his previous terms (1990-93 and 1997-99) even his friends described him as arrogant, vindictive and impulsive. A religious conservative, he rose to political prominence as a staunch supporter of the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq, who is generally credited with irreversibly “Islamising” Pakistan.

As the dust settles and the new government forms, the two key challenges are the flagging economy and, of course, the security situation. The election campaign saw more than 130 political workers killed in Taliban attacks. Secular, liberal parties were unable to campaign openly at all. Others, like Sharif’s PML-N, held huge rallies with sound systems and live tigers.

Is this evidence that Sharif and his party are soft on terrorism? Certainly, both he and rival Imran Khan were criticised for failing to condemn the Taliban by name. It remains to be seen whether this was simply a pragmatic safety measure, or an indication of something more sinister.

Sharif has long been criticised for his tolerance of extremist sectarian groups. In 2002 Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a banned terrorist organisation, reformed into a political party, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWL). It fielded candidates in this election. According to the media, Sharif’s party and ASWL agreed that they would not compete against each other in 15 seats. This does not bode well for the PML-N being tough on terror.

Both Sharif and Khan, who looks set to lead the provincial assembly in the troubled northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, have espoused negotiation with the Taliban. “I think guns and bullets are always not the answer to such problems,” Sharif has said.

This will be hard to square with the army, which has lost many men in the fight. General Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, has said that the Taliban must disarm before negotiations can take place. The question is also raised: who would the authorities negotiate with? The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan is a splintered group that lacks the coherent political agenda of its brother organisation, the Afghan Taliban. And, of course, many are wondering, once you enter into negotiations, how much do you concede?

Analysts say that Sharif’s humiliating stint in prison for corruption and subsequent exile to Saudi Arabia have left him humbled and more mature, but it remains to be seen whether the “Lion of Punjab”, as he is nicknamed, has truly changed his roar.