With the return of Mian Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, politics in Pakistan has come to a full circle. General Pervez Musharraf, who had put Sharif in prison, is now under house arrest. But beyond the irony of this, what can we take away from this election and what will it take for Sharif to succeed as prime minister?
To understand the road ahead for Sharif, we must first look at the many interesting lessons from this election. First, it is clear that Pakistan today is a loose federation of provinces with polarised political choices and the near absence of a 'national' party. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) swept the polls in Punjab. The party won just eight seats outside Punjab.
Second, a new political force emerged from this election — Imran Khan. With Khan's fierce campaign, he managed a strange cocktail of support. He won decisively in the tribal province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where he made the opposition to the American drone attacks the key pillar of his campaign. And in urban Pakistan, he got the support of the 'posh' upper classes (especially the youth). While he did not win, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) got the second largest number of votes.
Third, this election demonstrated a maturing democracy, as the first transition from one elected government to another.
Fourth, we saw the emergence of a new Nawaz Sharif — a more mature, self-assured and canny leader. He played the role of a constructive opposition for the last five years (unlike many opposition leaders in South Asian countries). He ran a classic campaign of a wealthy well-organised political party, focusing on Punjab, with the strong support of the landed elite and businessmen. His reaction to victory was unifying, dignified and statesman like.
So, what will define whether Sharif succeeds as prime minister?
First, his success will depend not so much on what he does inside the National Assembly, but outside it. How he deals with the trappings of the unique Pakistani system will be his real test. How he manages the relationship with the Pakistan Army, with whom he has a rocky past and how he deals with the religious leadership, which has an important presence and an odd alliance with the army matters. How he deals with the overzealous and mercurial Supreme Court and tackles the evolving Taliban needs to be seen. And of course, how he steers the testy relationship with the United States is a matter of concern. This will be a classic tightrope walk and Sharif will need nuanced strategies for each stakeholder.
Second, Sharif will need to deliver on development and good governance. His constant refrain during the campaign, along with the fact that he built 'the bomb', was that he built Pakistan's first motorway. He will have to build many more motorways, rural roads, bridges, water pipes and electricity transmission lines, control corruption and create jobs — all at once — to convince the voters of his credentials.
Third, he will need to prove that he is the prime minister of all of entire Pakistan, not just Punjab. His ambition must be to ensure that PML(N) emerges as a truly national party in the next few years. As the prime minister, and with a full majority and the resources of government at his disposal, he has the opportunity to do so.
Fourth, he will have a historic opportunity to improve ties with India. He has made the right noises on India after the elections, but now he will have to walk the talk. How he does this, while keeping the army, the Taliban and other fringe forces in check, will be his biggest test. Giving an impetus to stronger economic cooperation, while reigning in militancy (which has a habit of derailing normalisation efforts whenever there is some progress) will be the right place to start. Stronger economic ties will provide a solid basis for making progress on difficult political issues.
The Pakistan elections have given hope of a new beginning. It is now up to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to deliver and leave behind a lasting new legacy.
Varad Pande works for the ministry of rural development and also writes on strategic affairs.
The views expressed by the author are personal.