ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s overwhelming victory in weekend parliamentary elections returns to power a seasoned politician who historically has had rocky ties with Pakistan’s powerful military and is viewed by many as soft on militants and extremist groups.
The expected showdown between Sharif, 63, and former cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan never really materialized. Sharif’s party swept the elections, putting him in a position to lead the next government and become prime minister for an unprecedented third time.
With much of the vote counted Sunday, unofficial results had Sharif’s party winning at least 46 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, according to Pakistani media projections. It was still unclear whether the final tally would give him an outright majority of seats, but his clear margin of victory meant he would easily be able to bring into his fold the handful of independent lawmakers and winning candidates from the country’s religious parties to form the government.
Trailing far behind Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party were Khan’s Movement for Justice with a projected 11 percent of parliamentary seats, and President Asif Ali Zardari’s outgoing Pakistan People’s Party with nearly 12 percent.
A steel baron and one of Pakistan’s wealthiest men, Sharif served as prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and from 1997 to 1999, until the army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, ousted him. Sharif lived in exile in Saudi Arabia until 2007, when he returned to Pakistan. His party won the Punjab provincial assembly elections in 2008 and garnered enough seats in parliament to become the main opposition rival to Zardari’s party.
Sharif has always had a difficult relationship with Pakistan’s military, which has run the country for more than half of its 65-year history and still holds sway over major foreign policy matters, such as Islamabad’s ties with the United States, Afghanistan and India. Many in Pakistan criticize him for what they say is his dangerous tolerance of extremist groups, including Sunni Muslim organizations that continue to wage a deadly campaign of violence against the country’s Shiite Muslim minority.
He also has espoused dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban, the country’s homegrown insurgency, a position that probably will put him at odds with the military, which sees the militants as one of Pakistan’s most pressing threats.
“He is softer on militants, and that will bring him in some divergence with the military,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst. “So unless he revises his approach, he’s going to land in trouble.”