Nawaz Sharif’s government battles to regain the initiative in Pakistan

After protests led by Imran Khan that paralysed Islamabad, the prime minister tries to get his ambitious agenda back on track

With its shiny new articulated buses, freshly dug underpasses and dedicated flyovers, Islamabad’s new public transport system is supposed to be a symbol of a government that gets big things done.

But as a December deadline approaches before thousands of civil servants supposedly start taking the 15-mile Metro Bus journey for their commute into the heart of Pakistan’s capital, the final section of the route along the city’s main avenue is a mess of giant holes and ripped up concrete.

Frantic construction work on the £265m scheme ground to a halt in August when thousands of anti-government protesters, led by opposition politician Imran Khan and a cleric called Tahir-ul-Qadri, flooded into the city.

It is not just an important project that has been held up. The protesters also succeeded in paralysing prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government.

The industrialist won a landslide victory in 2013 with promises of reviving a dying economy, forcing a meddling army to finally accept the authority of elected civilians, and making peace with India. More than 18 months later and every part of Sharif’s ambitious agenda is seriously off track.

India has responded to Sharif’s peace overtures with an unprecedented upsurge in cross-border firing. At home the government has been badly bruised by ferocious disagreements with the military, which earlier in the year succeeded in forcing the closure of one of country’s most popular private news channels, against the government’s will.

And international investors have been seriously put off by the sight of thousands of protesters overwhelming the government quarter of the capital and smashing their way into the grounds of parliament in late August.

“Before the protests we had a brilliant story to tell about Pakistan,” said Mohammad Zubair Umar, chairman of the privatisation commission.

Last year, 2013, had been a turning point for Pakistan, he said, pointing out that it was the first time a government had survived a full five-year term without being ousted in an army-backed coup. It also saw the first successful transfer of power to another elected government.

“We told investors that we now had the kind of political stability Pakistan never witnessed in its first 60 years,” Umar said.

But many observers feared Pakistan might be reverting to type when Khan descended on Islamabad to protest against the 2013 election, which he claims was stolen from him – something independent election observers are highly sceptical about.

Multimillion-dollar transactions to offload shares in the country’s Oil and Gas Development Company had to be postponed – foreign lawyers and financial advisers stayed clear of the country, let alone Umar’s office, which overlooks the parade ground Khan has taken over for his sit-in.

But despite the damage done, Sharif is determined to regain the initiative. On 4 November he tried to inject some energy into the government’s effort to eradicate polio, which Pakistan has struggled to bring under control. And on Friday he jetted off for a visit to Beijing following the deep embarrassment caused by the decision of China’s president, Xi Jinping, to cancel a trip to Islamabad in the wake of the protests.

Sharif has told his cabinet to press on with implementing unpopular decisions, including weaning the public off unaffordable electricity subsidies as part of an effort to end rolling power blackouts that have badly stunted economic growth.

“His political room to manoeuvre has narrowed and everything that was hard, on the economic reform programme, has got harder,” said one diplomat.

And yet Sharif is showing no sign of making life easier for himself by appeasing the army, which was driven to distraction last year by an extreme act of provocation: the government’s historic decision to try a former army chief, Pervez Musharraf, for treason.

Allies of the prime minister say he has no desire to let off the hook the coup leader who ousted him from an earlier period as prime minister in 1999.

Indeed, Sharif may even be emboldened by the ultimate failure of Khan’s street protests, which the former cricket star claimed would lead to the swift ousting of Sharif.

Conditions had seemed perfect for the army to demand Sharif step down in early September when thousands of protesters besieged the prime minister’s house and even, briefly, seized control of the state broadcaster.

But Sharif survived when all of Pakistan’s politicians – except those loyal to Khan – appeared at a dramatic joint sitting of parliament to give their support to the prime minister.

Even though some protesters remain on the streets and Khan is threatening another big rally on 30 November, Umar says the crisis is in effect over.

“A similar crisis just 10 years ago would have forced out the government,” he said. “The fact that parliament supported him proves Pakistan has changed.”

Sharif has ordered an acceleration of an already ambitious privatisation programme, including a restructuring and sell-off of the state carrier Pakistan International Airlines, which will have to shed much of its large workforce.

“I was surprised because there are definitely some in the government who don’t think we should be opening up new fronts,” Umar said.

“But if you don’t take these difficult decisions then what is the other option – just sitting like a lame duck prime minister and not doing anything?”


Jon Boone in Islamabad

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Pakistan election winner Nawaz Sharif tells rival Imran Khan to stop sledging

Prime minister-to-be says former national cricket captain, defeated in the polls, needs to 'show the sportsman's spirit'

Jon Boone in Lahore

13, May, 2013 @6:08 PM

Article image
Karachi's king over the water: Altaf Hussain of the MQM

From an unassuming office in Edgware, the Pakistani metropolis is ruled by a party Imran Khan accuses of murdering his Movement for Justice colleague Zhara Shahid Hussain

Luke Harding and Jon Boone in Islamabad

21, May, 2013 @6:15 PM

Article image
Imran Khan predicts 'a revolution' in Pakistani politics
Cricket legend addresses over 100,000 at rally in Lahore and vows to fight corruption and to negotiate with the Taliban

Declan Walsh in Islamabad

06, Nov, 2011 @8:40 PM

Article image
Pervez Musharraf bids to regain power in Pakistan – from London's clubland
The former military leader, in exile in London for the past year, believes he is the man to provide Pakistan with firm leadership

Julian Borger, diplomatic editor

01, Oct, 2010 @10:00 PM

Article image
Pakistan protests: Islamabad prepares for anti-government demonstration
Imran Khan calls for Nawaz Sharif to resign, while supporters of cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri clash with police in Lahore

Jon Boone in Islamabad

10, Aug, 2014 @3:48 PM

Article image
A guide to the Pakistan election
Simon Tisdall assesses the electoral landscape, the process, the key players and possible game-changers in the 11 May poll

Simon Tisdall

02, May, 2013 @11:46 AM

Article image
Pakistan's senior politicians rally to Nawaz Sharif amid violent protests
Special parliamentary session convened over 'revolt against state' led by Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri, as army's role questioned

Jon Boone in Islamabad

02, Sep, 2014 @5:25 PM

Article image
Pakistan elections: Imran Khan and the charge of the lights-out brigade

Energy shortages, inflation and insecurity are concentrating the minds of a generation about to vote for the first time. But do the country's young people really have the will to recast its politics?

Jon Boone in Faisalabad

08, May, 2013 @5:00 AM

Article image
Political crisis in Pakistan as media, politics and the military join the fray
As Imran Khan's supporters stage a sit-in on the streets of Islamabad, he reserves some of his ire for the Geo TV station

Jon Boone in Islamabad

29, Aug, 2014 @6:00 AM

Protesters march on Pakistan parliament 'red zone'
Troops take up positions to protect parliament as 30,000 supporters of Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri hold rally

Jon Boone in Islamabad

19, Aug, 2014 @10:25 PM