Brian Stewart: A measure of hope for troubled Pakistan?

Nawaz Sharif's commanding election win in Pakistan brings some certainty to South Asia's most difficult neighbourhood, Brian Stewart writes. But can the 'Lion of the Punjab' tame the twin demons of Taliban extremism and Pakistan's overweening military.

Nawaz Sharif's commanding election win on the weekend brings some certainty to South Asia's most difficult neighbourhood

Pakistani partisans, in this case supporters of former cricket star turned political leader Imran Khan, brave rallies and long lineups at the polls despite Taliban attacks. (Reuters)

It's a rare event when the world's powers have to struggle to grasp the implications of unexpectedly favourable news, especially in the dangerous, turbulent region of South Asia.

Yet, in the very heart of this area, Pakistan has just pulled off an open and free election few thought it capable of.

A truly impressive 60 per cent Pakistan's 86 million registered voters cast ballots despite a series of deadly Taliban attacks on party rallies.

And now Nawaz Sharif, a two-time former prime minister in the turbulent 1990s and the head of the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League, is busy choosing ministers for what promises to be a strong, new central government.

Calling Pakistan "a mess," Sharif has vowed economic reform to rescue the long-suffering economy, and a diplomatic push to improve its equally ailing foreign relations, including those with the U.S., but especially with war-torn Afghanistan and mutually hostile India next door.

This, of course, is one of the most unstable neighbourhoods on Earth, and it would be too much to predict a galvanic rise in peace overtures.

But the welcoming reaction to Sharif's victory by the Afghan and Indian governments raises hopes of incremental improvements that may bring a desperately needed calming effect.

Military meddling

The importance of this election cannot be overstated, because for years Pakistan appeared to be staggering toward internal chaos.

That's a truly frightening thought given that the fifth-largest democracy in the world has an estimated 80-100 nuclear warheads stockpiled for possible use against its equally armed-for-Armageddon neighbour, India.

For over a decade now, military and diplomatic academies all over the world have been contemplating worst-case scenarios of an approaching meltdown in South Asia with Pakistan at the core.

Political corruption there was seen as too pervasive, the economy too prone to breakdown, the guerrilla violence by the fundamentalist Taliban too destabilizing, and the Pakistan military's internal meddling too overpowering for even limited stability to last.

The military's contempt for politicians (and love of its own power) is such that it has simply imposed its own rule for half of the country's 66-year history. In fact it twice overthrew Nawaz Sharif in his earlier incarnations as prime minister.

But to put this week's vote in perspective, this is the first time that one elected government has been able to hand over power peacefully to another through the ballot box.

Bhuttos rejected

This time neither the bullying Taliban nor the military seems to have played much of a role in the outcome.

The widespread violence — more than 100 people killed in attacks on candidates and political rallies — was bravely shrugged off, while the generals kept to the side, perhaps realizing a real power shift was underway.

Pakistanis are taking justifiable pride in their achievement. A large contingent of international election observers was on hand and the European Union mission broadly praised the process.

Pakistan's incoming prime minister Nawaz Sharif, a steel baron and self-described 'Lion of the Punjab.' (Reuters)

But apart from the clear victory of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, with its power base in Pakistan's rich Punjab region, several other developments also suggest the winds of change are finally blowing here.

The previous party in power, the Pakistan Peoples Party (of the slain, former leader Benazir Bhutto), was rejected heartily by voters fed up with its long history of corruption and economic decline.

At the same time, a new populist party led by charismatic ex-cricket star Imran Khan captured fewer seats than predicted, but still showed an ability to mobilize youthful reformers, a development that portends a refreshing new influence in Pakistani politics.

Despite a bitter campaign Khan himself welcomed the historic nature of these elections. "We are now moving towards democracy," he said.

While Sharif reciprocated on Tuesday by taking flowers to Khan's bedside — the candidate had injured himself falling from an election platform — and the two vowed a "good working relationship."

Should that happen, it will further bolster civilian government against both the military and insurgents, particularly as Khan was one of the leading proponents of making some kind of accommodation with the Taliban to try to achieve an end to the violence.

Khan was also one of the leading opponents of U.S. drone strikes against the Pakistani Taliban, and that is an issue that Sharif, too, looks to want to address, though while also promising solid relations with the U.S.

Civilian will?

Still, despite all the positive surprises in this election, many doubts and cautions remain.

Sharif himself seems an unlikely torch bearer of change. A fabulously wealthy, former steel baron, he represents one of two continuing political dynasties — the Sharifs and the Bhuttos — who revolve in and out of office, at least when the military permits.

But experience can count in desperate times, and the Karachi stock exchange has already soared in anticipation of free market reforms and Sharif's ability to secure International Monetary Fund loans to help resuscitate a sickly patient.

He's also vowed a 100-day campaign to tackle inflation, which is averaging between seven and 11 per cent a year, and is hoping to fix the country's crippling energy shortages.

As for the Taliban, Sharif has appeared somewhat passive toward them before, and some analysts question his determination to confront them.

In public statements, however, he's been clear in seeking both negotiations with the Taliban while insisting that the group respects the constitution and "submits to the writ of the state."

Sharif's overtures both to the Taliban and Afghanistan could entail forcing Pakistan's powerful military intelligence services to curb their notorious support of Taliban unrest across the border.

And generals might resist the potential loss of this destabilizing asset, as well as the new government's efforts to defrost relations with the military's hated obsession, India.

"The civilian government has had practically no say in foreign and security policy since 1977," says Suhail Warraich, a prominent political commentator in Pakistan. Nonetheless, he still feels Sharif will be able to impose civilian will on both the military and the Taliban.

Well, we'll see. Others don't share that optimistic assessment. But it does seem clear that change is coming to the region.

Next year NATO allies leave Afghanistan and that country will hold its own election, also in defiance of the Taliban.

Meanwhile, both India and Pakistan seem to realize that their long tortured relationship requires new approaches. There's growing awareness, amid warnings from the U.S., Europe and China, that South Asia's enormous potential cannot be realized so long as this strife continues.

For the watching world it's premature to take too much optimism from the Pakistan election. But it's not too soon to offer best wishes.