new york

PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif is likely to maintain cordial relations with the US and tread ‘gingerly’ with Pakistan’s powerful military, while first bearing down on his country’s serious economic woes if his party wins Saturday's elections, The Washington Post said in a dispatch, citing the politician's friends and most loyal supporters.

They also said Sharif had emerged ‘chastened and mellower’ after his ouster from power in 1999, a humiliating stint in prison and several years in exile, according to the dispatch, as US media is increasingly focusing on the historic polls in Pakistan.

Before Nawaz Sharif's deposition in a military coup, they said, he was "power-obsessed, arrogant, impulsive, unwilling to collaborate."

But now, they say, there’s a new Sharif: a mature statesman who is the best choice to lead his crisis-prone country at a time when its seesaw alliance with the United States is more vital than ever to combating extremism and ending the war in Afghanistan.

The Post also said that Sharif built nationalist fervour with nuclear tests in 1998 to counter India’s bomb. "Yet he also strengthened ties with the longtime foe and reached agreements to reduce the prospect of war," the dispatch said.

"Sharif emerged, at least in some Washington eyes, as flexible when he helped defuse a nuclear crisis in 1999 after former President Pervez Musharraf sent troops to seize territory in the Kargil district of Indian-held Kashmir," it added.

"Born into wealth, Sharif is a free-market advocate whose return to office would delight Pakistani businessmen, who are reeling from years of energy shortages that have threatened to destroy several industrial sectors," the Post correspondent Richard Leiby wrote.

The dispatch, headlined: Has Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif changed his stripes?, said, "Sharif has been a force in politics for 30 years, joined at the hip with his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who just wrapped up five years as chief minister of Punjab, doling out development funds and public projects to secure his brother’s base. But even with their massive machine, Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to win an outright majority of seats in Parliament and will probably have to broker a coalition.

"Sharif, a religious conservative whom critics describe as soft on militant groups, also has promised to recalibrate Pakistan’s counterterrorism partnership with the United States, which many Pakistanis want to see severed.

"Sharif has long advocated civilian supremacy over the military, which remains the dominant force in Pakistan’s foreign policy and national security. The generals have always been wary of him, even more so now because of his recent calls to take Pakistan out of the US battle against extremists, including those sheltering on Pakistani soil.

"But Pakistan military is different today than 14 years ago, when then-army chief Pervez Musharraf toppled Sharif. Its current leader, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, says he is committed to democracy, and Musharraf is under house arrest in Islamabad, facing charges related to his autocratic rule after an ill-advised bid to join this year’s race.

"The conflict in Afghanistan would remain a major threat to Pakistan’s stability if a settlement with the Afghan Taliban isn’t reached ahead of the pullout of US-backed Nato combat troops by the end of next year. Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, with its historically deep ties to the Afghan Taliban, holds some sway in bringing insurgents to the table, but Kabul remains highly distrustful of Pakistan’s motives. The nations are frequently locked in conflict...

"Sharif has said that he is open to negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban - a virulently anti-state group that is allied with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda - seeking to impose Islamic law in Pakistan and has staged attacks that have killed thousands of Pakistani troops and citizens.”

"The domestic insurgents have spared Sharif and his campaign while mounting successive attacks on other candidates and threatening to kill voters. Since April, when campaigning began, the death toll from political violence has climbed to more than 110.

"The army will not negotiate with extremists unless they disarm and 'unconditionally submit to the state, its constitution and the rule of law', Kayani said last month. Many analysts say that if the insurgency prevails in Afghanistan, the emboldened Taliban will step up support for Pakistani militants, raising the prospect of a wider war against Islamabad."

Meanwhile, an opinion piece in The New York Times by BBC's Lyse Doucet said, "Pakistan seems like a country of two elections, two battles shaping the course of a nation already battered on every front — from power cuts crippling the economy to violence tearing at its very seams.

"One election is driven by fear, in which liberal-minded candidates and party offices are attacked almost daily by Pakistani Taliban who’ve declared this democracy un-Islamic. In three of four provinces, there has not been much of a campaign. Political space has been narrowed to 'corner rallies,' Skype video appearances, ads on TV screens or meetings on social media.

"But another process is also unfolding, born of pride and relief that, for the first time in Pakistan’s checkered history, an elected government has finished its term untouched by a coup or conspiracy and will soon hand over power to another.

"It’s not just rising militancy that is weaving a new political fabric: A growing urban middle class and a rambunctious private media mean that traditional feudal loyalties no longer hold quite the sway they once did.

"The brightest spark comes from a powerful new source of political energy: 40 million young Pakistanis now old enough to vote for the first time make up about 30 per cent of the electorate. Thus a poll already being mourned as “the bloodiest ever” is also hailed as the 'first youth elections."