Pakistan has a new sheriff in town—Shehbaz Sharif and he is facing a tough beat

Mayank Chhaya-

In Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan has a new sheriff in town who will have to police a whole lot of crises, including an economy in the doldrums and politics in ferment.

As prime minister, Sharif could also face serious pressures within his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML-N where his older brother, Nawaz Sharif, the exiled former prime minister, could be his challenger. The older Sharif was known to have opposed his brother’s ascension on earlier occasions because he saw him more as a regional satrap looking after the country’s most influential state of Punjab while he himself in Islamabad.

As of now, Sharif will remain in office until October 2023 when the next elections are due unless, of course, he either calls them early or delays them. Both are not inconceivable possibilities.

However, looking at the hugely sympathetic and successful rally that the ousted prime minister Imran Khan held in Karachi, the prospects of early elections are dim at best. Contrary to expectations Khan appears to have reemerged stronger. Of course, these are early days for any intelligent prediction about which way Pakistan’s politics would turn in the weeks and months.

For now, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party (PTI) has decided to boycott the National Assembly under Sharif’s 174 seats to his 155. That absence gives the Sharif coalition unchecked powers to ram through an agenda of their choice, including some serious amendments to the country’s constitution if they so choose.

It is not clear what Khan’s strategy is in his party essentially walking out of the country’s parliament despite the fact that it is still the single largest party in it.

Sharif has challenges on so many fronts in such a short time that despite his reputation as a workaholic who gets the job done, he is expected to get mired on day one. On the economic front, one of the most difficult challenges for him would be whether to maintain a relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has bailed Islamabad out many times but made it severely conditional. There is popular support to get the IMF off Pakistan’s back but given the condition of its economy that is going to be impossible.

In terms of the Sharif government’s relations with India, they may not form a priority since he has so many domestic issues to battle. The Sharif family does have a warm feeling toward India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi who on December 25, 2017, made a special stopover in Lahore on his way back from Kabul to attend the wedding of Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter. The two leaders met with much bonhomie and walked together hand in hand.

Much was expected of that friendship but as often happens in India-Pakistan relations, things went south quickly after that.

Although Shehbaz Sharif, unlike his older brother, is said to have a better equation with the Pakistan army, he does not have the bandwidth and the time to make a significant difference in India-Pakistan relations.

Domestically, he also has to worry about his PML-N’s equations with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of former President and Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Although the two parties are direct political rivals, they have had to come together for the sake out getting rid of Imran Khan. But in any upcoming elections, the PPP leadership would see themselves as the main challengers to Sharif and PML-N.

In some ways, the PPP is caught in a predicament of the political compulsion to help the Sharif government succeed but not so much that it undermines its own prospects as a major national party.