By: Katharine Houreld
As thousands of protesters blockaded Pakistan’s parliament, the spirits of the lawmakers inside were briefly lifted by a rare appearance from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently.
But Sharif only listened in silence as legislator after legislator denounced the protesters seeking his government’s resignation. He then stood up, and left through a back door.
Toppled in a 1999 coup, jailed and then exiled, Sharif made a triumphant comeback as prime minister for a third time in last year’s general election. Voters had hoped he would prove better than a long line of prime ministers widely seen as feckless, and would shore up a sagging economy by tackling the chronic power cuts and crumbling infrastructure that bedevil the country of 180 million.
But critics say that his slow pace of reforms, apparent detachment and poor relations with the military emboldened his challengers and encouraged the anti-government protests. “This is a symptom of arrogance and bad governance,” said independent senator Mohsin Leghari. “When issues are not discussed in parliament, they spill out into the streets.”
That is what has happened with opposition leader Imran Khan and cleric Tahir ul-Qadri leading tens of thousands of supporters to Islamabad, demanding that he step down.
With the army already showing interest, it will emerge strengthened at the expense of the prime minister. That would deal a blow to civilian rule, a year after an election that marked the first democratic transfer of power in Pakistan’s coup-blighted history.
Many believe that Sharif, a wealthy steel magnate from Pakistan’s wealthiest and most populous province, has only himself to blame. Ordinary Pakistanis have not seen many improvements since he took office. Apart from the annual budget, not a single law was passed in his first year. Draft legislation to tackle corruption and electoral reform has languished.
Key posts remain unfilled, and government regulators lack heads. There is still no foreign minister. Defence and the water and power ministries share a single minister, as do the information and law ministries. A spokesman for Sharif said these posts were being filled gradually as the government sought capable candidates.
The government can point to some macroeconomic wins: stabilising the currency, rebuilding foreign reserves and cutting inflation by a couple of points to around 8 per cent. But these have not won Sharif much applause at a time when populist opponents are promising subsidised food, free housing and a crackdown on corruption.
Sharif’s habit of surrounding himself with a small coterie of advisers, many of whom are also relatives, led protest leader Khan to jeer that the prime minister was a “monarch”.
The jibe resonates with protesters like 20-year-old Atique ur-Rehman, a student who says his degree cannot get him a job without family connections. “It’s only one family holding all the power in Pakistan,” he complained.
Sharif’s brother is the chief minister of Punjab. The son of his old friend, the finance minister, is married to Sharif’s daughter. His nephews and wife’s relations are also political figures.
Some complain, however, that the family network means Sharif bypasses formal institutions. He has attended less than a dozen parliamentary sessions since he took office, said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob of PILDAT, a think-tank that tracks legislative issues. That means Sharif was in parliament for about 10 per cent of the sittings, while his predecessor attended 80 per cent.
Sharif’s office says he is too busy overseeing security and energy policy to attend parliament all the time, and is represented by his cabinet ministers.
All Sharif’s problems — from accusations of nepotism to grumbling lawmakers and protesters — would go away if he just delivered reforms and progress faster, said Senator Leghari. “Then, when you are popular, you can even rein in the military.”
But Sharif may now be too weak to fend off the military, which still consumes nearly half of the government budget and considers foreign and security policy its domain.
Sharif angered the military after returning to power by attempting to mend fences with India and insisting on months of — ultimately fruitless — peace talks before agreeing to launch an offensive against Pakistan’s Taliban. He also sided with a media house that enraged the army by publicly accusing it of shooting a prominent journalist.
The treason trial of Pervez Musharraf, the army chief who overthrew Sharif in 1999 and later became president, was the final straw. A court granted Musharraf permission to leave the country during the lengthy trial, but the government refused. A political analyst said Sharif wanted to humiliate Musharraf in revenge for Sharif’s own imprisonment.
Sharif’s office said the military is always consulted in the decision-making process and reports of differences are “more fiction than reality”.
Indeed, Sharif’s tone has already changed. As protesters marched on Islamabad on August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day, he gave a speech notable only for its fulsome praise of the army.