ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s new prime minister took office Wednesday vowing to fix the country’s ailing economy and end electricity blackouts while also calling for an end to American drone strikes in the tribal areas.
Nawaz Sharif was elected to an unprecedented third term as the prime minister of this country of 180 million people by an electorate frustrated with corruption, inflation and unemployment and looking to him for quickly needed solutions.
He must also navigate a tricky relationship with the U.S., which has angered many Pakistanis by using unmanned aerial vehicles to kill militants who hide in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Speaking to the parliament after he was elected, Sharif acknowledged the size of the problems in front of him and vowed action.
“I will do my best to change the fate of the people and Pakistan,” he said. Sharif received 244 votes from the 342-seat parliament, returning him to an office he held twice during the 1990s before being forced out in a military coup in 1999. He was later sworn in by President Asif Ali Zardari.
During the speech to lawmakers, Sharif emphasized that fixing the country’s economy was his top priority. He listed a litany of problems facing Pakistan, including unpaid loans, unemployment, a disillusioned youth, extremism and lawlessness, and widespread corruption.
Though the speech focused mostly on domestic and economic issues close to the hearts and pocketbooks of most Pakistanis, Sharif did touch on the country’s often-tenuous relationship with the U.S. Specifically, he called for an end to the drone strikes used by the U.S. to kill militants in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan to the west.
“This daily routine of drone attacks, this chapter shall now be closed,” Sharif said to widespread applause in the parliament hall. “We do respect others’ sovereignty. It is mandatory on others that they respect our sovereignty.”
But he gave few details on how he might end the strikes. Many in Pakistan say the strikes kill large numbers of innocent civilians — something the U.S. denies — and end up breeding more extremism by those seeking retribution with the U.S.
The U.S. considers the strikes vital to battling militants such as al-Qaida, who use the tribal areas of Pakistan as a safe haven. Sharif’s comments are in line with previous statements he has made calling for an end to the controversial strikes.
The vote in the National Assembly was something of a formality after Sharif’s party’s victory in the May 11 parliamentary elections. That win was a comeback for the 63-year-old Sharif. After his 1999 ouster, he spent nearly eight years in exile, mostly in Saudi Arabia, and five years in the opposition before regaining the prime minister’s office.
His assumption of office marks a turning point for the country — the first time a democratically elected government has handed over power to another in the country’s 65-year history. The unique nature of the transition was evident in Sharif’s speech.
“Whenever dictatorship has come, Pakistan has suffered a huge loss,” he said. “Now it should be decided forever that Pakistan’s survival, protection, sovereignty, progress, prosperity and respect in the international community depends upon strengthening democracy in Pakistan,” he said.
But if the vote Wednesday was easy, solving the problems that Pakistan faces will not be. As the new premier, Sharif will face a mountain of problems, including an unprecedented power crisis. Over the last five years of the previous administration, power outages — some as long as 20 hours — have plagued the country. People suffer through sweltering summers, and in recent years gas shortages in the winter have left people unable to heat their houses.
Companies struggle to find a way to run businesses without a reliable source of electricity. Sharif and his team of advisors have been meeting continuously with officials from the country’s power-related industries and interim government officials from affected ministries.
When it comes to ties with the U.S., Sharif has sent mixed messages about what type of relationship he’ll pursue. The U.S. and Pakistan have differed in the past over how to best pursue peace in Afghanistan and how to deal with militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
During an interview with reporters shortly after his election, Sharif said he wants good relations with the United States but criticized the drone strikes. But many analysts say such anti-American sentiment may mellow or take a backseat to more pressing economic concerns in his administration. Pakistan will need American support for the likely economic bailout it will need from the International Monetary Fund, and the two sides both have an interest in finding a peaceful solution to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Sharif and his party have also been accused of failing to go after extremist groups accused of sectarian violence that have a fairly open presence in Punjab province, despite the fact that Sharif’s PML-N has controlled the province and its police for the last five years.
Sharif has also advocated for talks with the Pakistani Taliban, who’ve been trying to overthrow the Pakistani government, instead of military operations against them.