Unfortunately, Sharif will not have the luxury to focus, laser-like, on Pakistan’s economy. To keep his reform agenda moving, he will also need to fend off various threats to domestic order. Chief among these is the violence that plagues the country from its megacities to its mountainous hinterlands along the Afghan border.
There are multiple roots of this problem: the state’s misguided nurturing of militant groups, poor education and limited career opportunities, and the breakdown of traditional social, political, and institutional structures throughout the country. At first, Sharif will at best be able to tackle the symptoms of these underlying causes by beefing up police, courts, and Pakistan’s other security services.
Long-term success will depend on whether the PML-N commits to a program of law and order or instead chooses to temporize with Pakistan’s home-grown militants. Past experience is discouraging; Sharif’s Punjab Province is littered with violent organizations with whom the PML-N appears to have established a truce. Thus far, Sharif appears not to have any credible program to quell the violence or fight extremists in the short or long term. But the problem is existential for Pakistan, and can’t be sidelined forever. Sharif must either find the courage to address it or become its next victim.
Then there is the question of whether Sharif can work with Pakistan’s military. Only the Army can possibly take on well-armed groups like the Pakistani Taliban. If Sharif can put aside old vendettas with the military and patiently assert his control over foreign and defense policy, he will probably win short-term cooperation from Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. In November, Sharif can start fresh with a new Army chief when Gen. Kayani retires.
Finally, Sharif needs to make a peaceful settlement with the smaller parties his party trounced in the election. The vote may have been a step forward for democratic rule, but if left unaddressed its results could herald a step backward for national unity. Different political parties won each of the provinces and the country’s biggest city of Karachi, highlighting a dangerous regional and ethnic fragmentation. Here too, a bit of magnanimity by Sharif – along with serious horse trading – could help avert more bloodshed and distractions from his economic reform agenda.