If the Pakistani elections could be boiled down to one issue, it was electricity. For many voters, their principal concern was the crippling power shortages they endure — sometimes for up to 20 hours a day — and the effect it has on the economy. Economists estimate that Pakistan’s energy crisis shaves off up to 5% growth each year. In big industrial towns like Faisalabad, where Sharif’s party won many seats, factories have been forced to shut down and tens of thousands of workers laid off. If the next government can diminish power cuts substantially, it may be enough to win the next elections. If it fails, it could suffer the fate of its predecessors.
Sharif appealed to voters, particularly in his native Punjab, as a businessman who has experience of governance and who may be able to lift Pakistan’s economy out of its current misery. In a country shifting toward a more conservative direction, Sharif’s social conservatism and religiosity was a plus. In 1997, when he last won an election, Sharif told academic Vali Nasr, he wanted to be “both the [Turkish moderate Islamist leader Necmettin] Erbakan and the [economically minded former Malaysian Prime Minister] Mahathir [Mohamad] of Pakistan.”
Sharif will face three major challenges when he comes to power. He will have to restore electricity and boost the economy. He will have to deal with domestic terrorism. And he will have to work with the U.S., trying to strike a balance between managing relations with Washington while assuaging anti-American sentiment at home. Sharif’s aides say that he is best placed to boost the economy, thanks to his free-market approach. “The best way to deal with the electricity problem is to privatize the energy sector and give the business community a stake in it,” says Khawaja Muhammad Asif, a leading PMLN member.
When it comes to the Pakistani Taliban, Sharif is less clear. In recent years, he has preferred to remain mostly quiet on the threat, as he did during the election campaign. While secular anti-Taliban politicians braved bomb attacks, Sharif and Khan were able to campaign mostly in peace. Sharif has said that he would like to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban, an approach that is popular among conflict-weary Pakistanis but controversial. Critics point out that all peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban have failed and yielded them more space.
In 2010, Sharif’s younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who was chief minister of Punjab, made a controversial appeal to the Pakistani Taliban to spare his province because, like them, his party is “anti-U.S.” During his rule of Punjab, the younger Sharif was also criticized for not doing enough for religious minorities.
Sharif will also try to establish a new relationship with Pakistan’s powerful generals. “I think the army will want to work with Nawaz Sharif,” says retired Lieut. General Talat Masood, an analyst. The relationship has been repaired over recent years with Sharif’s top aides often meeting army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
During his last stint in power, Sharif was capable of destructive confrontations with not just the army, but also rival politicians and critical journalists. Masood says that Sharif has matured over the years: “The time in exile has given him time to reflect and learn.” Surveying the election victory on Sunday, many Pakistanis hope that is true.