Derided by Imran Khan as US puppet, new Pakistan PM bets on centrism

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif addressing Pakistan's parliament after his election on April 11, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD (BLOOMBERG) - To ousted leader Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister is simply a "slave of America" who conspired with the United States to remove his government and reorient the nation's foreign policy.

Yet those close to Mr Shehbaz Sharif, chosen by lawmakers on Monday (April 11) after Mr Khan was removed in a no-confidence vote, describe a man adept at balancing ties between powerful actors - whether it be the US, China, Russia or even Pakistan's own military, which staged a coup against his brother more than two decades ago.

"Shehbaz Sharif would really like to pursue friendly relationships with all countries," said Mr Miftah Ismail, a former finance minister who worked with Mr Sharif when he headed Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province.

"We would love to have good relations with the US and China, and, of course, Russia."

Mr Sharif's ability to reset Pakistan's foreign policy will be much harder after Mr Khan accused the US of pushing for his ouster, stoking anti-Americanism in a bid to delegitimise the new government and return to power in an election that must be held by August 2023.

Mr Khan rallied supporters across Pakistan on Sunday night to protest what he called "US-backed regime change", and dozens of lawmakers in his party resigned on Monday to pressure Mr Sharif.

The discord threatens to complicate Mr Sharif's talks with the International Monetary Fund to secure US$3 billion (S$4 billion) remaining from a loan programme to shore up the nation's finances.

Pakistan's stocks and rupee soared on Monday on optimism at obtaining the funds, which were held up after Mr Khan cut fuel and electricity prices to help the country's 230 million people cope with Asia's second-fastest inflation.

Even before taking power, Mr Sharif found himself on the defensive. When speaking last month about the importance of good US ties for Pakistan's economic prospects, his remark that "beggars can't be choosers" triggered Mr Khan's taunts.

Mr Sharif later clarified the comments by saying "true independence comes from self-reliance".

The exchange showed the challenges facing a politician who has often been more comfortable working behind the scenes rather than on stage as a fiery political orator.

Whereas Mr Khan built up a personality cult stemming from his fame as a former cricket star, Mr Sharif has said he would defer to his older brother Nawaz Sharif and other key party leaders if they disagreed with his proposals on foreign and economic policy.

"Shehbaz is known for being a sharp and efficient manager and leader - but he's never been prime minister," said Dr Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Centre.

"Like Khan, he'll be put to the test if faced with a post he's never held before, with all the immense challenges that come with that and especially in an environment of hyper partisanship and serious economic crisis."

In his first remarks after taking power on Monday, Mr Shehbaz Sharif said he would hold a public hearing on Mr Khan's claims that the US sent his government a threatening letter and vowed to resign "if there is any iota of conspiracy".

Mr Shehbaz Sharif pledged good ties with "all-weather friend" China while also seeking better ties with the US and Europe. He made no mention of the IMF as he vowed to turn Pakistan into "a paradise for investment through wonderful policies".

He said of the US: "Our relations have seen upheavals, no doubt. At times, our ties saw some confusion, but does that mean we should ruin our relations with them? No, we would have to maintain these relations on the basis of equality."

Ahead of Mr Khan's ouster, the US repeatedly denied his claims of a foreign conspiracy and said it respects Pakistan's constitutional process.

On Monday ahead of the parliament vote, Chinese Foreign Minister spokesman Zhao Lijian said Pakistan would remain an "iron clad" partner no matter who took power.

Supporters of Mr Sharif celebrate after his election on April 11, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Both the Sharif brothers spent about seven years in exile in Saudi Arabia and London following a 1999 coup by General Pervez Musharraf.

Upon his return, Mr Shehbaz Sharif soon found himself returning to power in Punjab, where he built a reputation as a pro-business administrator.

A habitual early riser who would hold meetings at 7am, Mr 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, Punjab's capital.

The city soon became more developed than other major metro areas in Pakistan, with an extensive road network and the first modern train service.

"He is not a man of popular politics - he isn't that kind of leader," said Mr Sohail Warriach, Lahore-based senior editor at the local newspaper Jang. "His expertise is management and execution."

After his brother became prime minister again, their party unveiled the US$46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) - a foundational piece of President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese officials became enamoured when he oversaw construction of a coal plant in 22 months that Beijing expected to take 36 months, referring to his approach "Shehbaz speed".

"Shehbaz Sharif is very pro-business and he would really like to revive the CPEC and increase the speed of the projects that are underway," said Mr Ismail, the former finance minister. "We understand that China has been a friend in all times whenever Pakistan has needed it."

Mr Sharif's critics say his business acumen came with a lot of corruption. He is facing a number of money laundering and graft charges, including over an allegation that he cancelled a low-cost housing contract in Punjab and transferred the work to a company connected to him.

The Sharif family has called the charges politically motivated, saying the Khan administration sought to keep them out of politics.

Unlike Mr Khan, Mr Shehbaz Sharif has also managed to maintain solid ties with the military, which has ruled Pakistan for almost half of its history and maintains influence in formulating foreign policy.

During his brother's premiership, Mr Shehbaz Sharif often helped to build consensus when the two sides did not see eye-to-eye. The new leader's solid relations with key generals will give him greater credibility in dealing with US President Joe Biden and his European allies, particularly in helping stabilise a Taliban-led Afghanistan, according to retired general Talat Masood.

Mr Shehbaz Sharif would focus on avoiding "a situation where Pakistan could be embarrassed", Mr Masood said.

Mr Sharif often helped to build consensus during the time his brother Nawaz Sharif was prime minister. PHOTO: REUTERS

One major decision facing the new leader will be whether to give General Qamar Javed Bajwa an extension as army chief when his term expires in November.

Mr Khan had publicly sparred with General Bajwa over military promotions and was said to favour a rival for the top job, leading to the deterioration of a relationship that had helped him stay in power.

Mr Khan's claims that the US was seeking to oust him also did not sit well with military. Shortly afterwards, General Bajwa gave a speech saying that Pakistan wanted to broaden and balance ties with both Washington and Beijing.

"Overall, a reset in foreign policy will take time, given the baggage of the past couple of decades," said Dr Kamran Bokhari, director at the Washington-based New Lines Institution for Strategy and Policy. "Especially the damage done during Imran Khan's government."

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