The Subcontinent: Mian Nawaz Sharif Earns Another Chance in Pakistan

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The Subcontinent: Mian Nawaz Sharif Earns Another Chance in Pakistan

Pakistan has had four elected governments and three interim administrations within the past eight years. Each of the elected prime ministers was removed prematurely from office on charges of corruption and maladministration by an appointed president, using the now-infamous Eighth Amendment to Pakistan's constitution.

This year, however, for the first time a government has been formed that commands a clear parliamentary majority. In a National Assembly of 217 members, Mian Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML) captured 138 seats in the elections that were completed on Feb. 3. At the same time Benazir Bhutto's People's Party was almost demolished in all of Pakistan's four provinces, including her own Sindh province. She now sits in a very much shrunken opposition.

This reversal of fortunes when Bhutto had served three years of her five-year term as prime minister began with the souring of her relations with President Farooq Ahmed Leghari, her own nominee. Shi'i-Sunni sectarian killings and the precarious law-and-order situation in Karachi, rumors of rampant corruption in her administration, and above all diminishing foreign exchange reserves caused the president to caution the prime minister.

The caution, according to some knowledgeable Islamabad circles, was scorned by Bhutto. This ultimately led Chief of Staff Gen. Jehangir Karamath to urge the president to dismiss the Bhutto government. President Leghari did so on Nov. 5, 1996, appointing an interim administration and calling for fresh elections within 90 days as required by the constitution. Bhutto was in a fighting mood and challenged the president's action in a court of law.

In fact, the court had upheld a similar challenge in the previous case of Nawaz Sharif in 1993. Although Bhutto pinned all her hopes on a court-ordered reinstatement, this time the court upheld the president's action just days before the scheduled elections, making Nawaz Sharif's election virtually certain.

Politics in Pakistan take different routes for different people. In 1993 Altaf Husain, now in exile in London, ordered his political party, the Mohajir Qaumi Movement of Karachi, to boycott the elections and paid a very heavy political price by losing whatever clout he had in Islamabad. In 1997 there were only two major contenders, Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Had Benazir chosen to boycott the elections, the Feb. 3 results might have appeared unconvincing. Instead, Bhutto contested the elections and her party was almost wiped out. Her loss was predicted but the magnitude of the disaster was not.

A third candidate, Imran Khan, leader of the newly-formed Tehrik-e-Insaf party and a former captain of Pakistan's championship national cricket team, was riding a wave of popularity that he hoped might crest in the 1998 elections. The sudden calling of early elections found him not quite ready for prime time. Imran Khan lost in all of the eight different constituencies in which he ran personally, and his party did not win a single seat in the parliament. Sita White, a woman in California who alleged that Khan had fathered her child, also contributed to his electoral debacle.

Elections in the subcontinent can be a long and emotional struggle. Normally campaigns are launched months before the polling date, and contests can be heated. However this year's elections in Pakistan did not arouse any great public interest, largely because neither Bhutto nor Sharif had compiled previous impeccable records in office. The results showed that a mere 34 percent of the people bothered to vote. This was barely below the 38 percent participation in the 1996 U.S. general elections, but for Pakistan it was an unprecedented low turnout. Nevertheless Pakistani democracy has been given yet another chance.

There seems little question that Nawaz Sharif has won a mandate from the people, since he has secured a comfortable majority in the national assembly. …