His voice hoarse from weeks of gruelling campaign stops, Shahbaz Sharif – one half of a political duo that is set to chart Pakistan’s course over the next five years – said he and his older brother, Nawaz Sharif, would change the “landscape of Pakistan in every sense of the word.”
In a wide-ranging interview with The Globe and Mail at his home in Lahore, the younger Mr. Sharif, who is expected to continue as Punjab’s energetic taskmaster and chief minister, spoke of the “tough agenda” his brother faces as prime minister and the “iron resolve” the Sharifs will show in tackling the myriad of problems.
The Pakistan Muslim League-N party of Nawaz Sharif emerged from elections Saturday with a clear victory. That win at the national level and in the province of Punjab means there will be a Sharif in the prime minister’s office and another controlling the country’s most populous and wealthiest province.
Shabhaz Sharif will hold the fort in the family stronghold of Punjab. He and his brother are very close, and while he is not expected to hold a formal post at the national level he will continue as his brother’s closest advisor.
Mr. Sharif’s wood-panelled office, graced with a painting of national poet Muhammad Iqbal, has a wall of shelves that includes books about U.S. presidents, the post 9-11 “war on terror,” English classics and Urdu poets. Mr. Sharif – he is 61, and his brother is 63 – is a politician inspired by Europe, Japan, South Korea and Turkey. If those countries could emerge from brutal wars and strife to become world powers, he said, “why not Pakistan?”
Pakistan has fought three wars with India. The Sharifs are hoping to defrost relations between the two nuclear powers and help stabilize an imploding Afghanistan. Both goals could put them at odds with the powerful Pakistan army.
Most crucial, Mr. Sharif said in the interview Saturday, was for the new government to tackle the “menace of terrorism.”
For five years, the Pakistan Taliban have struck civilian and military targets at will. Nawaz Sharif, who was prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and from 1997 to 1999, has suggested that the Pakistan Taliban cannot be defeated by military might alone.
His brother offered more details of the plan to defeat terrorism, which he said would use a “multi-dimensional strategy” that included “socio-economic measures” like education, health and “productive employment” to keep young Pakistanis from falling prey to terrorist groups.
“It can’t be only through the bullet of a gun, because that has efficacy [only] up to a point,” Mr. Sharif said.
Mr. Sharif also said terrorism had to be addressed “without a loss of time.” When asked whether that meant there was an urgent need to negotiate directly with the Taliban, he emphatically said he opposed any rush to talk to the Taliban.
“Please don’t put words in my mouth – that there is an urgency to negotiate with the Taliban. I’ve not said this,” he said, adding that “if the Taliban desire to have a dialogue then it has to be on our terms.”
“They have to accept the constitution of Pakistan as the supreme document of our country,” he added. “They have to accept that rule of law is for all and sundry and they have to accept that there can’t be a state within a state. They have to submit to the writ of the state. They have to give up their arms. So I think these are broad parameters which I think would obviously then lead to any kind of dialogue,” he said.
The outgoing government was criticized for not articulating a policy for ending terrorism.
In Punjab since 2008, Mr. Sharif introduced programs that curbed a dengue epidemic; increased school enrolment and attendance; and built the country’s first mass transit system with its own dedicated corridor. But his free laptops to students and a subsidized flour scheme were labelled political gimmicks. But the Sharifs have their baggage as they rise again to national power. Their party has been largely Punjab-based, and political rivals accuse them of not doing enough to crack down on corruption while in office.
The Sharifs now will have a chance to prove their party is a national one. They also have expansive promises to fulfill. They pledged to increase power supply within two years to bring relief to homes, businesses and factories that have to go without electricity for 12 or more hours a day. “Power outages is something that has crippled our economy… and this has to be resolved on war footing,” said Mr. Sharif.
Mr. Sharif also reflected on the military coup of 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf that resulted in both brothers being jailed and then sent in to exile for seven years. “There were times we thought that it’s the end of the world,” he recalled.
Gen. Musharraf, who returned from his own exile in March in hopes of running in the elections, is now under house arrest and faces charges in several cases related to his time in power. Mr. Sharif said the “law has to take its own course” as Mr. Musharraf’s cases go through the system.
“On a personal level we have forgiven Musharraf – absolutely,” he said. “He’s not even an issue that we want to discuss and we have moved forward because Pakistan needs a dedicated leadership, Pakistan needs a ray of hope, Pakistan needs servants rather than masters.”