Shahbaz: Best Bet for Pakistan Regaining Stability?

The Army is also backing Shahbaz in the economic recovery process.

3 mins read
This photo released by Pakistan's Press Information Department (PID) shows newly-elected Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif (L) meeting with former Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari at the Parliament House in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan on March 3, 2024. (PID/Handout via Xinhua)

Mr Shahbaz Sharif as the Prime Minister remains the best bet for Pakistan regaining a degree of stability and emerging from the poly crisis, at least for now but will have to navigate the tricky waters some of which may be within the Sharif family itself.

A few reasons for Shahbaz being the best bet are related to the structure of Pakistan politics, his proven ability for governance, a fruitful first tenure as the Prime Minister in the recent past and ability to win over confidence of key global stakeholders and international institutions.

Shahbaz firstly has the confidence of the Pakistan Army. For decades he has been a go to man with the Army from the Sharif family and whenever elder brother Mr Nawaz Sharif ran foul with the military Shahbaz was seen as an intermediary to patch up.

The Army has now finally placed the interlocutor in a position of governance if not power, for the support of Mr Nawaz Sharif to Shahbaz is extremely important. But the Army is clear that he will not raise issues with the military particularly on a say in strategic policy and internal promotions of senior generals.

Shahbaz is also far more mature than Imran the mercurial Khan who is the undoubtedly the most popular leader in Pakistan but cannot assume the throne due to his quirkiness amongst other drawbacks.

Shahbaz on the other hand lacks the charisma of his elder brother and thus cannot be a regular vote winner. Realising this the Army brought back the senior Sharif from exile providing multiple judicial reliefs to rally the people in Punjab against Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf. After Nawaz pitched the PML N to power though not the largest party in the February 8 elections, his utility for the Army due to his penchant to question the military was low and thus possibly the more obedient younger brother was pitched in.

Shahbaz administrative and governance skills are proven as the Chief Minister of the province of Punjab and the brief tenure as the Prime Minister. These will come in handy for a Pakistan facing multiple crisis from economic to energy, unemployment and feeding the hungry.

While Imran Khan is popular his governance ability have been limited evident from the vision of the so called Medina welfare state without resources compatible with the same. Shahbaz on the other hand is far more rooted.

A key requirement for Pakistan’s recovery ahead would be negotiations with the International Monetary Fund [IMF]. Shahbaz has done it once and could cut a last minute deal speaking to the IMF Director Kristalina Georgieva in June last year to seek release of the tranche and thus preventing debt default in some ways.

Shahbaz has selected Muhammad Aurangzeb as the finance minister with the omnipresent Ishaq Dar who has been a perpetual occupant of the chair during PMLN government in Pakistan given the role of Foreign Minister.

Aurangzeb’s policies are likely to be far more practical than that of his predecessors even though the required structural changes in economy are unlikely to be put into place given the need for political will. The Army is also backing Shahbaz in the economic recovery process.

Acceptability of the United States is another factor which determines how the scales are tipped for another IMF tranche and Shahbaz Sharif will be far more favourably seen in Washington than a leader such as Imran.

On the security front, the challenge of politico diplomatic initiatives to overcome the threat from the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan and Baloch militant groups is likely to be a thorn but the military will take most of the flak of security lapses.

Concerns Ahead

While so far, the path appears to be rosy for Shahbaz given the political uncertainties, there are many concerns ahead.

Delivery on the economic front will remain important for the Army is unlikely to support him beyond a reasonable period if the economy continues to go down under.

This will also lead to disenchantment in the public at large which may also set into motion internal politicking within the PML N with Shahbaz’s detractors getting a long handle to seek his ouster.

For now Maryam Sharif as the Chief Minister of Punjab should be busy proving her governance skills as the political battle between her and Shahbaz son Hamza within the Sharif family may have been settled for now.

The mystery of the return of two sons of Nawaz Sharif – Hussan and Hussain needs some more dwelling into.

Any initiative with India – albeit after a new government is formed in Delhi in June is expected to also see the Army red, thus is best avoided.

In sum it can be said that of all the leaders in Pakistan given the current political outcome post the February 08 polls, Shahbaz remains the best bet for stability in Pakistan, but the window is short and he would have to prove himself in the next two years.

Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

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