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New Pakistan PM vows to improve economy

06 June 2013, 08:55

Islamabad - As he stepped into the prime minister's job for the third time Wednesday, Nawaz Sharif vowed to improve Pakistan's limping economy and end American drone strikes. It was a nod to the voters who elected a man viewed as a pro-business conservative to tackle problems including a fiscal meltdown, power outages, and spillover from the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

His success in an office he was forced out of by a military coup in 1999 will hinge on how quickly he can address Pakistanis' most basic needs such as electricity and jobs, but many analysts believe his strong mandate at least gives him a fighting chance at success.

Sharif was elected by parliament Wednesday after his party won the 11 May nationwide elections. He was sworn in hours later by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

The country of 180 million people that Sharif must now lead is weighed down with a host of problems: unemployment, electricity blackouts, inflation, corruption and militancy. In a speech long on rhetoric but short on specifics, Sharif vowed to address the country's myriad of problems.

"I will do my best to change the fate of the people and Pakistan," he said.

Sharif is the first Pakistani leader to serve three terms. He was elected prime minister in 1990 and then again in 1997, thrown out of office in 1999 by a military coup, spent nearly eight years in exile, and then five years in opposition before returning to power.

During the campaign, he sometimes lashed out at the US and its policy of using unmanned aerial vehicles to kill militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Speaking to parliament after being elected, he once again called for an end to the drone policy.

"This daily routine of drone attacks, this chapter shall now be closed," Sharif said to widespread applause. "We do respect others' sovereignty. It is mandatory on others that they respect our sovereignty."

But he gave few details on how he might end the strikes. Many in Pakistan say the strikes kill large numbers of innocent civilians, something the US denies, and end up breeding more extremism by those seeking retribution with the US

The US considers the drone program vital to battling militants such as al-Qaeda, who use the tribal areas of Pakistan as a safe haven.

Many analysts say such anti-American sentiment may mellow or take a backseat to more pressing economic concerns in Sharif's administration. Pakistan will require American support for the likely economic bailout it will need from the International Monetary Fund, and the two sides both have an interest in finding a peaceful solution to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Sharif has also said that he would like good relations with the US and in his speech noted the need to pay attention to the concerns of "other countries."

But for most Pakistanis the drones are secondary to the issues that will define Sharif's tenure in office: the economy and electricity.

Over the last five years of the previous administration, power outages, some as long as 20 hours, have plagued the country. People suffer through sweltering summers, and in recent years gas shortages in the winter have left people unable to heat their houses.

Companies struggle to find a way to run businesses without a reliable source of electricity.

Sharif and his team of advisors have been meeting continuously with officials from the country's power-related industries and interim government officials from affected ministries to map out a strategy.

The new prime minister listed a litany of problems facing Pakistan during his speech, including unpaid loans, unemployment, a disillusioned youth, extremism and lawlessness, and widespread corruption.

Pakistani voters will be watching closely to see what he does to solve those problems.

Outside the parliament, Mohammed Aslam, who came from Sharif's hometown of Lahore to the capital for the ceremony, said he voted for Sharif because he promised to solve the electricity crisis. But he warned that Pakistanis will not tolerate bad governance for another five years.

"If he fails, he will go home next year," he said.

One thing going in Sharif's favor is his strong mandate. The previous Pakistan People's Party government kept their fragile coalition together for five years but had to constantly make concessions to smaller partners.

Sharif's party has a 176-seat majority in the 342-member house and a strong platform from which to address the country's economic problems. Sharif, who comes from a Pakistani business family that made its wealth in the steel industry, has widespread business support.

"I do actually see a lot of resolve. They have a very strong mandate," said Werner Liepach, Pakistan country head for the Asian Development Bank.

Sharif made little mention of the militant attacks and the fighting in Pakistan's tribal areas that have killed thousands of civilians and security forces. He has been accused of failing to go after extremist groups accused of sectarian violence that have a fairly open presence in Punjab province, despite the fact that Sharif's PML-N has controlled the province and its police for the last five years.

Sharif noted the historic nature of Wednesday's ceremony. His assumption of office marks the first time a democratically elected government has handed over power to another in the country's 65-year history.

"Now it should be decided forever that Pakistan's survival, protection, sovereignty, progress, prosperity and respect in the international community depends upon strengthening democracy in Pakistan," he said.

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- AP


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