Pakistan’s New Prime Minister Calls for End to Drone Strikes

Jun 05, 2013

pakistanBy SALMAN MASOOD and 
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, called for an end to American drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt on Wednesday, shortly after he won a parliamentary vote to lead the country for an unparalleled third time.

“The chapter of daily drone attacks should stop,” Mr. Sharif told the packed lower house of Parliament, where he won a comfortable majority of votes. “We respect sovereignty of other countries but others should also respect our sovereignty.”

Mr. Sharif, 63, will be formally sworn in Wednesday evening by President Asif Ali Zardari at a ceremony at the President’s House in Islamabad.

That ceremony will mark a remarkable comeback for Mr. Sharif, a Punjabi politician who served as prime minister twice in the 1990s before being ousted in a military coup in 1999. He enjoys a strong mandate, following a sweeping win by his Pakistan Muslim League party in the May 11 general election.

But Mr. Sharif is returning to power at a difficult time. In his speech to Parliament on Wednesday, he alluded to some of the most difficult challenges facing his administration including soaring government debt, high unemployment, lawlessness and corruption.

Mr. Sharif said he could not promise to resolve those problems quickly, but he vowed to promote a culture of transparency. “My government will not tolerate any form of corruption,” he said as legislators thumped their desks in approval.

Mr. Sharif’s comment on drone strikes suggested a firm, and perhaps more distant, tone in relations with the United States, whose alliance with Pakistan has frequently been stormy in recent years.

During the election campaign, Mr. Sharif vowed to limit American influence in the country. He boasted of having resisted American diplomatic and economic pressure to carry out the country’s first nuclear tests in 1998. And he criticized C.I.A.-operated drone strikes, which have become a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment.

Analysts caution, however, that Mr. Sharif’s rhetoric may have been driven by political considerations, with some suggesting that he may be more pragmatic toward the United States once in office.

In contrast, Mr. Sharif has promoted warmer relations with China. In Parliament he promised to increase economic cooperation with Beijing, including the completion of road and rail links between the Pakistani ports of Gwadar and Karachi, on the Arabian Sea, and the landlocked cities of western China.

Mr. Sharif’s return to power after nearly 14 years also coincides with a landmark for Pakistan’s fragile democracy – the first time that a civilian government in Pakistan has served a full, five-year term, and peacefully passed power to another administration.

Mr. Sharif’s political comeback looked distant in December 2000, when the former military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, banished him into exile in Saudi Arabia, one year after the coup that ousted him.

Back then, Mr. Sharif enjoyed little public support because of accusations of corruption and mismanagement, while the military coup received a broad, if short-lived, welcome. But General Musharraf’s nine-year rule saw the country suffer from a rise in military violence and political instability.

Mr. Sharif and his opposition rival, Benazir Bhutto, returned from exile in late 2007. Ms. Bhutto was killed in a suicide bombing later that year but her party, led by her husband, Mr. Zardari, won the 2008 general elections.

While the Zardari government introduced some important laws and constitutional changes, it lost the public’s trust amid persistent accusations of mismanagement and corruption, as well as the effects of a painful electricity crisis.

Mr. Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party was trounced in the May 11 election, but remains the country’s second largest political force, just ahead of a grouping led by former cricketer Imran Khan.

And in a twist of fate, Pervez Musharraf, who ousted Mr. Sharif in 1999, is under house arrest at his villa outside Islamabad facing a litany of court cases including a possible treason prosecution.

Since his years in exile, Mr. Sharif, a wealthy steel industrialist, has recast himself as a seasoned politician who is resistant to military interference in politics, and who is determined to uphold the principles of democracy.

He consolidated his political base in Punjab, the country’s wealthiest and most populous province, where his Pakistan Muslim League party controlled the provincial government.

But at the center, in Islamabad, Mr. Sharif’s party faced accusations of being an ineffective opposition to Mr. Zardari’s government.

As prime minister, Mr. Sharif faces a plethora of daunting challenges, including a festering Taliban insurgency in the northwest of the country, Baluch separatism in the southwest, a sagging economy and strained relations with neighboring countries.

How Mr. Sharif deals with the debilitating energy crisis will be his first test of dealing with the public discontent.

Several small political parties had announced their support for Mr. Sharif before the voting Wednesday.

Aftab Khan Sherpao, a former interior minister who leads one of those parties, said the most important issues facing Mr. Sharif were “security, energy and economy.”