Islamabad: PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif has made a triumphant return to the centre stage of Pakistani politics at a time when the country is bedeviled by immense problems ranging from a tanking economy, corruption to Taliban insurgency.

Fourteen years after he was removed as premier, arrested and humiliatingly sent into exile to Saudi Arabia, Sharif has declared victory in the historic general elections. In many ways, analysts say, Sharif's return reflects the slow and steady maturing of democracy and politics in Pakistan, which has been run by the military for more than half of its 66-year history.

And it is Sharif's relationship with the powerful military, which sets the agenda for foreign and security policies that will largely determine the country's future. The PML-N is set to bag over 125 of the 272 parliamentary seats for which polls were held on Saturday, with the party performing better than expected in the face of a last minute surge by Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

The PML-N is now comfortably placed to form a coalition government, setting up an unprecedented third term as premier for Sharif who is set to return to power at a time when Pakistan is facing several major challenges, including growing extremism, a strong Taliban presence in the country's northwest, rampant corruption, uneasy relations with the US ahead of the withdrawal of foreign forces from war-torn Afghanistan and an economy that has virtually been in free fall for the past few years.

He has already made it clear that he intends to take up India-Pakistan relations from where he had left them when he was ousted from power in 1999. After conducting nuclear tests in response to India's atomic blasts in 1998, Sharif had worked with his then Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee to improve relations.

Talking to the media persons on Saturday night, Sharif said he worked hard for a detente with New Delhi before Musharraf deposed him. "We'll pick the threads where we left. We want to move toward better relations with India, to resolve the remaining issues through peaceful means, including that of Kashmir," he said.

Sharif has shown that he is willing to work with other political forces to deal with these issues, saying that all parties should sit with the PML-N to find ways to tackle Pakistan's pressing problems.

In recent days, he has also called for peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, blamed for killing scores during the election campaign. Analysts and commentators also believe the once-impetuous Sharif has matured during his years in exile and out of power. Many of them point to the fact that he allowed the Pakistan Peoples Party-led government to complete its five-year term, despite being in a position to pull it down, simply because he wanted democracy to grow stronger in Pakistan.

"He is also a practical politician who understands that he cannot wish away the importance of the army. They will learn to work together," Farrukh Pitafi, a columnist and talk show host, said.

"The perception that the civilian government and the military cannot work together is totally misplaced. The army is a prudent institution that understands it has to work with every elected political government," he said. And while the PML-N is also set to return to power in Punjab – Pakistan's most populous province that has more than half the seats in the Lower House of Parliament – Sharif will have to walk a fine line in handling inter-provincial relations as Imran Khan's party will be in power in the restive northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa while the PPP is set to form government in southern Sindh province.

Over the past two years, the PML-N launched several populist programmes, including distributing laptops to students and giving away new taxis, and during his campaign, Sharif promised new infrastructure projects like bullet trains and major highways.

Analysts, however, believe Sharif will be hard pressed to find the funds for such schemes. Over the past five years, the government has been widely accused of economic mismanagement. The country has remained stuck in a cycle of low growth and high inflation, unable to create jobs for the two million people who enter the employment market annually.


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