Derided by Imran Khan as an American puppet, Pakistan’s new PM bets on centrism

For ousted leader Imran Khan, Pakistan’s new prime minister is simply a “slave of America” ​​who conspired with the United States to overthrow his government and reorient the country’s foreign policy.

Yet those close to Shehbaz Sharif, chosen by lawmakers Monday after Khan was impeached in a no-confidence vote, describe a man adept at balancing ties between powerful players – be it the United States, China, Russia or even the Pakistani army, which staged a coup against his brother more than two decades ago.

“Shehbaz Sharif would really like to pursue friendly relations with all countries,” said Miftah Ismail, a former finance minister who worked with Sharif when he ruled Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. “We would like to have good relations with the United States and China, and of course Russia.”

Sharif’s ability to reset Pakistan’s foreign policy will be much more difficult after Khan accused the US of pushing for his ouster, stoking anti-Americanism in a bid to delegitimize the new government and return to power in elections due to be held by August 2023. Khan rallied supporters across Pakistan on Sunday night to protest what he called “US-backed regime change”, and dozens of lawmakers from his party resigned on Monday to put pressure on Sharif.

The discord threatens to complicate Sharif’s talks with the International Monetary Fund to secure the remaining $3 billion from a loan program to shore up the nation’s finances. Shares and the rupee of Pakistan soared on Monday on optimism about securing the funds, which were blocked after Khan cut fuel and electricity prices to help the 230 million people in the country to face the second fastest inflation in Asia.

Even before taking power, Sharif found himself on the defensive. When speaking last month about the importance of good relations with the United States to Pakistan’s economic prospects, his remark that “beggars cannot choose” sparked taunts from Khan. Sharif then clarified the comments by saying that “true independence comes from self-reliance”.

The exchange showed the challenges faced by a politician who has often been more comfortable working behind the scenes than on stage as a fiery political speaker. While Khan has built a cult of personality stemming from his fame as a former cricketer star, Sharif has said he will defer to his older brother Nawaz Sharif and other key party leaders. they disagreed with his proposals on foreign and economic policy.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan | AFP-JIJI

“Shehbaz is known to be a sharp and effective manager and leader – but he was never prime minister,” said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “Like Khan, he will be tested if he is faced with a position he has never held before, with all the immense challenges that come with it and especially in an environment of hyper partisanship and serious crisis. economic.”

In his first remarks after taking power on Monday, Shehbaz Sharif said he would hold a public hearing into Khan’s claims that the United States had sent his government a threatening letter and promised to resign “if he there is an iota of conspiracy”. Shehbaz Sharif pledged to maintain good relations with China, “friend for all time”, while also seeking better relations with the United States and Europe. He made no mention of the IMF as he pledged to make Pakistan “an investment paradise through wonderful policies”.

“Our relationship has gone through upheaval, no doubt,” he said of the United States. “Sometimes our ties have experienced some confusion, but does that mean we should ruin our relationship with them? No, these relations should be maintained on the basis of equality.

Prior to Khan’s ouster, the United States repeatedly denied his claims of foreign conspiracy and said it respected Pakistan’s constitutional process. Ahead of the parliament vote on Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian’s spokesman said Pakistan would remain a “rock-solid” partner no matter who seized power.

The two Sharif brothers spent around seven years in exile in Saudi Arabia and London following a 1999 coup by General Pervez Musharraf. Upon his return, Shehbaz Sharif quickly found himself in power in Punjab, where he earned a reputation as a pro-business administrator.

A habitual early riser who held meetings at 7 a.m., Sharif was known to make surprise visits to local government offices to keep bureaucrats on their toes and took a keen interest in infrastructure projects in Lahore, the capital of Punjab. The city quickly became more developed than other major metropolitan areas in Pakistan, with an extensive road network and the first modern train service.

“He’s not a popular politician – he’s not that kind of leader,” said Sohail Warriach, editor of local Lahore-based newspaper Jang. “His expertise is management and execution.”

After his brother became prime minister again, their party unveiled the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – a cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese officials fell in love when he oversaw the construction of a coal-fired power plant in 22 months that Beijing planned to take 36 months, referring to his “the speed of Shehbaz” approach.

“Shehbaz Sharif is very pro-business and he would really like to revive CPEC and accelerate the ongoing projects,” said Ismail, the former finance minister. “We understand that China has always been a friend whenever Pakistan needed it.”

Supporters of Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan's new prime minister, celebrate Monday in Lahore.  |  AFP-JIJI
Supporters of Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan’s new prime minister, celebrate Monday in Lahore. | AFP-JIJI

Shehbaz Sharif’s critics say his business acumen has been accompanied by a lot of corruption. He faces a number of money laundering and corruption charges, including an allegation that he canceled a low-cost accommodation contract in Punjab and transferred the work to a company linked to him. The Sharif family called the accusations politically motivated, saying the Khan administration sought to keep them out of politics.

Unlike Khan, Shehbaz Sharif has also managed to maintain strong ties with the military, which has ruled Pakistan for almost half of its history and retains its influence in formulating foreign policy. During his brother’s premiership, Shehbaz Sharif often helped build consensus when the two sides disagreed.

The new leader’s strong relationships with key generals will give him greater credibility in his dealings with US President Joe Biden and his European allies, including to help stabilize a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, according to retired General Talat Masood .

Shehbaz Sharif would try to avoid “a situation where Pakistan might be embarrassed”, Masood said.

A major decision for the new leader will be whether or not to give General Qamar Javed Bajwa an extension as army chief when his term expires in November. Khan had publicly argued with Bajwa over military promotions and reportedly favored a rival for the top job, leading to the deterioration of a relationship that had helped him stay in power.

Khan’s claims that the United States was seeking to oust him also did not sit well with the military. Shortly after, Bajwa gave a speech saying Pakistan wanted to expand and balance ties with Washington and Beijing.

“Overall, a foreign policy reset will take time, given the baggage of the past two decades,” said Kamran Bokhari, director of the Washington-based New Lines Institution for Strategy and Policy. “Especially the damage caused during Imran Khan’s rule.”

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