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Are Sharif’s electoral gains worth celebrating?

Questions need to be raised over his ability to introduce reforms as he translates his majority in parliament to a meaningful government

Gulf News

The political gains made by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in by-elections this past week, may have prompted celebrations among members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). But in reality, the gains driven by an expansion of the PML-N’s already proven majority in Pakistan’s parliament are simply meaningless.

Thursday’s by-elections across 41 constituencies of Pakistan’s federal and provincial legislatures marked the first time ever that such a large number of constituencies were up for grabs in by-elections.

This followed the landmark event in May this year, when a new parliament was elected to replace another which successfully completed its five-year term, making such a transition the first time ever. The event was widely seen by many pro-democracy activists as a virtual coming of age in a country where short lived periods of democracy in the past were interrupted by military interventions.

For the moment it seems, that politics may have changed. Yet, this feeling of comfort may be more of a façade than reality given the early signs of the new government’s emerging performance. Sharif’s arrival in office has taken place at a time when Pakistan’s security conditions are in a dismal state and the future of the economy remains surrounded by uncertainty.

Controversial pledge

The by-elections have taken place in a week when Sharif has made his first speech to reach out to ordinary Pakistanis. The event could have easily been a moment for the new prime minister to not only share his concerns over prospects for Pakistan but also his reform plans to tackle those very concerns.

Yet, a failure to spell out the latter meant that many ordinary Pakistanis were left nervous over the future of 
their country. Sharif used his speech to renew a controversial pledge of negotiating with the Taliban, in spite of the apparent refusal by members of the hard line group to reciprocate.

Though Sharif suggested that tough measures to tackle the challenge from the Taliban still remained an option, many analysts saw his remarks more for their determination to seek a conciliatory end to the ongoing conflict in Pakistan. Going forward, the risk is indeed that of witnessing the Taliban become further emboldened, in responding to a state they consider under attack, on the defensive and still offering the opportunity of negotiations.

At the same time, questions need to be raised over Sharif’s ability to introduce reforms connected to security conditions and the economy, as he translates his more than comfortable majority in parliament to a meaningful government. For the moment, he remains distant from the beginning to move Pakistan towards a badly needed national political consensus in support of a new security paradigm. For weeks, uncertainty has prevailed across the country over the government’s plans to host an all parties’ conference or APC. The event that was originally scheduled for the first half of July, was supposed to be the first step towards bringing leaders of key political parties on board for discussing future security strategies.

Ill advised economic policies

Meanwhile, some of his government’s ill advised econ-omic policies have hardly helped to inject a badly needed sense of stability. Shortly after taking charge as prime minister, Sharif oversaw a new budget that controversially introduced the idea of allowing the notoriously corrupt tax officials to gain first hand access to any bank account across the country. Supposedly, this step is meant for all tax officials to probe ‘hidden wealth’ of tax evaders. Yet, it has so far proven to have had a counter effect as the rupee has shrunk in value and anecdotal evidence suggests a number of affluent Pakistanis seeking to transfer their wealth out of the country.

These examples broadly illustrate a disconcerting trend for the future of Pakistan, notwithstanding the latest political gains by the ruling party.

The disturbing reality which continues to haunt is indeed that of a country which may have come of age in terms of parliamentary politics. Yet, Pakistan remains distant from coming to age in terms of tackling the most vital challenges confronting the state, society, security conditions and the economy.

The celebrations by Sharif’s party notwithstanding, Pakistan remains distant from celebrating a turning of the corner as it struggles to emerge from the several crises which have haunted it for years.

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.