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Why Pakistanis voted for Nawaz and not Imran

May 12, 2013 11:38 IST

Seema Mustafa on how Pakistan voted for change this time in the hope that the new government will do what it is supposed to do – govern.

The dust will soon be settling on what has been an amazing democratic assertion by the people of Pakistan, and it will be time for hard business. Having defied the extremists and their threats, having braved the violence that has left a trail of death and destruction in the country, the people have registered their mandate with the message that they are no longer passive, but proactive stakeholders, in the future of their country.

And while they voted for a change, they also opted for experience giving Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz another chance in government in the hope that the party will do in the national assembly what it has done in Punjab over the past months: govern.

The Pakistan army read, and what is more important, acted according to the people’s mood in these polls. If the army had countered the almost obsessive desire for democracy, it would have prevailed no doubt but earned brickbats and the wrath of the young generation that has exercised a strong influence over these polls.

Instead by remaining at the back, by refusing to support one or the other party at least publicly, and by limiting its role to providing security for the elections, the Pakistani army has earned considerable goodwill and in the process valuable space that it can use to its advantage as the days go by.

Pakistanis, like Indians, were only guessing about the army’s relationship with the different candidates and the last days buzz that it was supporting Pakistan Tehriq-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan really was belied by the final results that brought Sharif on top, and ready to take the oath as Pakistan’s prime minister.

Conventional wisdom in Pakistan places the army and Sharif at loggerheads but clearly this apparently adversarial relationship has thawed with the times. More so as Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz who is ruling Punjab now, is seen as a pragmatic and in the view of Lahore-ites an excellent administrator who has earned tremendous support in Punjab.

In fact a dominant view insists that Sharif’s success can be directly related to Shabhaz’s surging popularity.

PTI’s Imran Khan who has emerged as the second largest party in these polls, though far behind the PML-N, can be satisfied really with his 350 per cent victory, given the fact that he did not have a single seat in the last national assembly. The breeze in his favour was given the appearance of a virtual storm by the enthusiasm of the younger generation that was for the first time in decades, motivated by his campaign to come out and cast their vote.

Khan articulated some important issues suggesting change, an end to corruption, a new beginning -- all manna for the youth fed up with the direction taken by Pakistan’s polity in the past years, and keen to throw out the old.

At one level they succeeded, in that the Pakistan Peoples Party led by President Asif Ali Zardari was relegated to the sidelines with the legacy of Bibi unable to save it from the doldrums.

The PPP will have to eventually rid itself of Zardari if it wants to revive as a force in Pakistan’s politics. The anger and the hatred against him has been palpable on Pakistani streets for a long time now.

Sharif will thus become the prime minister of Pakistan, but in very changed circumstances since he was there last. A seat of thorns has replaced the cushion of comfort, with terrorism and the war against terrorism ripping Pakistan apart.

Sharif’s last government was steeped in corruption and nepotism and he will have to literally rise to the challenges staring him in the face. This is not going to be an easy task given his own limitations, but if he decides to seek strength from an informal umbrella coalition that seeks to soothe and not counter and confront the other stake holders, he could usher in a new era for Pakistan.

Army chief General Pervez Kayani has spoken of the need for such governance earlier, and it will now be up to Sharif to ensure that the people’s support is turned into an active asset.

In a recent interview before the elections he told a news channel that he would consult all before finalising his policy on dealing with terrorism -- whether it would be dialogue and military action, or one or the other -- and this approach could pay dividends.

The two new checks that Sharif will face, will be the people who have demonstrated their desire and ability to play a role in the democratic process of governance; and the media that is now described by sober journalists in Pakistan as the demon that has escaped and will not go back into the bottle.

Sharif has not been particularly easy with the media in the past, and will have to develop new skills to keep it on his side.

Significantly, all the political parties in the fray spoke of peace with India. Sharif went several steps further and at the risk of alienating the extremist groups supporting him said that this would be a priority.

Clearly this went in his favour, and good relations and peace will have to be a priority for Pakistan’s government if it wants to have even half a chance at containing violence within its territory and tackling the menace of terrorism confronting it from its northern borders.

In fact, instead of the usual tit for tat policy that both Islamabad and New Delhi have perfected in the 60-odd years of dealing with each other, Sharif could actually use his mandate to take several unilateral steps forward to ensure smiling reciprocity from India. He does have goodwill in this country, with active support even among the more hawkish ruling elite.

The challenges are many, and all piled up there for Sharif and his party to unravel and deal with. This is probably one of the many reasons why the astute Pakistani’s voted for him and not Imran Khan at this stage, counting on his experience to bring about a real change.

Seema Mustafa