Viewpoints: The impact of elections in Pakistan

Nawaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif appears on course to lead Pakistan's government. Experts look at how the result will affect US-Pakistani relations.

Shamila Chaudhary, former Pakistan director, National Security Council

The Pakistani people spoke on 11 May. What they resoundingly said was they are more comfortable with status quo in politics than revolution.

As a result, the Punjab-based Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) will lead the next government and party leader Nawaz Sharif is slated to become Prime Minister for a third time.

There are three positive implications of a Sharif-led government for the United States and its primary interest in Pakistan, which is to ensure the country's political and economic instability do not impede American efforts associated with the war in Afghanistan and the fight against Al Qaeda.

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Shamila Chaudhary

They have some positive ground to stand on despite the flimsy foundations of the overall relationship”

End Quote Shamila Chaudhary

First, PML-N's strong parliamentary representation ensures that the United States has to worry less about the government in Pakistan collapsing from a vote of no confidence.

Second, Mr Sharif brings with him the backing of the Saudi royal family, which has closely engaged the Sharif clan during its periods of governance and exile. This helps the US by potentially stabilizing Pakistan's economy and removing some burden of responsibility from the US as it makes plans to decrease its own aid to Pakistan.

Third, Mr Sharif is a businessman who supports the free market. This complements the vision of regional co-operation and collaboration the United States is trying to push in South Asia as it prepares its departure from Afghanistan.

However, mutual interests do not automatically translate into partnership. This is where the hard work begins for policymakers on both sides, but at least they have some positive ground to stand on despite the flimsy foundations of the overall relationship.

Pakistani army soldiers Relations with the Pakistani military could define Mr Sharif's premiership
PJ Crowley, former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration

On July 4 1999, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met President Bill Clinton to prevent a crisis in Kargil from escalating into yet another war with India over Kashmir, potentially involving nuclear weapons.

Mr Sharif agreed under US pressure to walk Pakistan back from the brink, at the cost of his job.

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PJ Crowley

The US will watch what Sharif does about extremists who threatened the election”

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Army Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistani military forced him into exile three months later.

Fast-forward 14 years. Mr Sharif is poised to return to power following Saturday's election.

As he forms his government and seeks to achieve what he failed to do in two previous tries - finish his term in office - a number of questions loom that will shape US-Pakistani relations over the next few years.

Can Mr Sharif work with the Pakistani military? Under the current army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, the military has stepped back from politics, at least in the open.

Gen Kayani retires later this year. The choice of his successor and how they work together will say a lot about whether Mr Sharif's third term will be charmed or turbulent.

What can he do with India? During Mr Sharif's prior tenure, he showed a willingness to engage India and increase trade, a key to constructing a stable if not normal relationship.

The military remains obsessed with India, but any political progress Mr Sharif can manage will be an important counterbalance.

While Mr Sharif is cordial with American leaders, the US will want him to answer the same question posed to Mr Musharraf in 2001: Are you with us or against us?

The US will watch what Mr Sharif does about extremists who threatened the election and Pakistan's overall security, about the not-so-secret US drone campaign that the military tolerates and the Pakistani people despise, and whether he will plays a constructive role in a political resolution in Afghanistan.

The answers will say a lot about whether US-Pakistani relations under Mr Sharif will resemble a genuine partnership, a business relationship or a failed marriage.

Nawaz Sharif campaigns in Lahore Uniting Pakistan will be one of Mr Sharif's key challenges
Haider Mullick, provost fellow at Tufts University's Fletcher School

Pakistan's new boss, Nawaz Sharif, may hurt or help US plans for the region.

Despite disarray at home and obstacles to regional integration, Mr Sharif has the opportunity to make Pakistan a safe, pluralistic and prosperous trading hub and shun the path of becoming Asia's second North Korea.

But before he can rewrite Pakistan's foreign policy, Mr Sharif will have to push back the military and unite his fractured country.

Mr Sharif's party has won without a national mandate, causing many in the smaller provinces to call his victory the tyranny of the majority.

Most Pakistanis agree on two major threats - terrorism and a plunging economy.

A free market entrepreneur, Mr Sharif is known for reducing regulations, building infrastructure and encouraging foreign investment.

Yet without nation-wide security build on diplomacy and the use of force against the Pakistani Taliban and secessionists, Mr Sharif will fail.

Peace with strength will require unity of effort between Mr Sharif and his generals, which is in short supply.

Moreover, Mr Sharif's heated rhetoric against US drone strikes has galvanized most Pakistanis against the US-funded Pakistani military.

Even if Mr Sharif unites the country and reins in the generals, he will have to fight and cajole insurgents, giving the Pakistani military the one thing it desperately needs: public support.

Hoping that jihadi and secessionist insurgents will disappear once the United States leaves Afghanistan is a fool's paradise.

Washington should closely watch Mr Sharif's attempts at uniting and securing his country.

Any hope of increasing US civilian and military aid should depend on concrete steps by Pakistan to facilitate American withdrawal from Afghanistan and, more importantly, become a regional conduit of commerce and not a hotbed of nuclear-protected terrorism.

Ballots being counted in Pakistan Sharif promised voters a pro-business government for Pakistan
Daniel Markey, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Nawaz Sharif's victory will pose new challenges for the United States. The centre-right leader has little affection for Washington or its post-9/11 counter-terror campaign in South Asia.

And unless Sharif and Pakistan's army can quickly move past old vendettas to forge a stable working relationship, US officials will find it tricky to navigate between Mr Sharif and the generals.

That will complicate already sensitive dealings on issues like drones and reconciliation talks with the Afghan Taliban.

But the story is not entirely gloomy. Mr Sharif's pro-business rhetoric is music to many American ears.

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Daniel Markey

Sharif's victory will pose new challenges for the United States”

End Quote Daniel Markey

If the PML-N government follows through on campaign promises and delivers a few quick and convincing policy reforms on taxes, power or infrastructure, it would translate into more jobs, profits and government revenues.

These are all essential components of national stability. Good governance will not be brought to Pakistan overnight, yet US officials would welcome even modest improvements after years of dysfunction in a country of nearly 200 million people that frequently ranks near the top of global "failing state" indexes.

The other appealing component of Mr Sharif's message has to do with India. Islamabad and New Delhi have been inching forward on a trade deal that Sharif can reasonably be expected to push over the goal line.

Normalised relations between South Asia's two nuclear-armed states would help US officials sleep more soundly at night.

Thus, Washington and Islamabad will have their differences, but Sharif's core agenda - economic reform and improved ties with India - is one the United States should cheer.

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