The man favored to become Pakistan’s next prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, on Saturday called into question the U.S.-backed campaign by the Pakistani military against Taliban insurgents in the country.
“I think guns and bullets are always not the answer to such problems,” Sharif, a former two-term prime minister who was overthrown in a 1999 military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, told the Reuters wire service.
In a separate interview with India’s CNN-IBN, Sharif said that “engagement” and dialogue with the Taliban should be pursued. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a conglomeration of a dozen militant organizations, is allied to al-Qaeda and Taliban factions in neighboring Afghanistan.
The U.S. blames the TTP for numerous attacks, including an April 2010 suicide bombing at the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar in which six Pakistanis were killed, and a foiled attempt to detonate a bomb in New York City’s Times Square a month later.
The U.S. government designated the TPP a foreign terrorist organization later that year, describing it as a “force multiplier” for al-Qaeda.
The world’s second-largest Islamic country is one of the biggest recipients of U.S. foreign aid. The Obama administration’s State Department budget proposal for fiscal year 2014 includes a request for $1.4 billion for Pakistan.
Pakistan has endured four military coups and a fifth unsuccessful attempt, and more than half of its 65-year history as an independent state has been spent under military rule. Saturday’s election marks the first time that power will be transferred democratically by an elected civilian government, having completed a full five-year term.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) enjoys strong support in Punjab province, which accounts for some 60 percent of the country’s population and is therefore pivotal to any election outcome. His popularity endures despite years of enforced exile and accusations of corruption and money-laundering arising in the 1990s.
The PML-N came second in the last parliamentary elections, in 2008. They were won by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the party led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto until her assassination in 2007 and thereafter by her widower, President Asif Ali Zardari.
The PPP’s flag-bearer in the current election is Zardari and Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who at 24 years old is not only too young to serve as prime minister under Pakistani law but is also not even campaigning inside the country due to security concerns.
Both of Bilawal’s parents were dogged by allegations of corruption, as have been two former PPP prime ministers, Yousaf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf.
Another prospective future prime minister, former military ruler and president Musharraf, had hoped to contest Saturday’s election but was placed under house arrest last month. He faces charges relating to the dismissal of senior judges while president in 2007, and is also accused of not providing sufficient security for Benazir Bhutto at the time of her assassination.
The only remaining politician with the potential to do well on Saturday – according to inconsistent opinion polls – is Imran Khan, a former international cricketer who heads the Movement for Justice (PTI) party. Like Sharif, Khan has identified himself with populist calls for Pakistan to distance itself from the U.S.-backed campaign against TTP terrorists.
In its public stance on the elections, the TTP pointedly omitted criticism of either Sharif’s PML-N or Khan’s PTI. The militant group did say that it would target the PPP, as well as two smaller secular parties, and dozens of people have been killed in TTP terror attacks linked to the election campaign since mid-April.