ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called on Wednesday for an end to US drone strikes in the country’s northwest, as he took office for an unprecedented third term.
Some 13 years after he was deposed in a coup and sent into exile, the 63-year-old was formally chosen by a vote in the National Assembly and later took the oath of office from President Asif Ali Zardari.
The country faces a daunting array of problems ranging from crippling power cuts to militancy, and the new prime minister said citizens should be in no doubt about the challenges ahead.
The state of the economy was “beyond imagination”, he told parliament. Sharif has advocated peace talks with the Taliban.
He publicly criticised the drone strike that killed Taliban deputy Waliur Rehman last week, echoing long-held Pakistani complaints that the US campaign violates national sovereignty. On Wednesday Sharif used his first speech as PM to reiterate his concerns.
“We respect the sovereignty of others and they should also respect our sovereignty and independence. This campaign should come to an end,” he said, calling for a comprehensive strategy to root out extremism.
According to Britain’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, CIA drone attacks in Pakistan have killed up to 3,587 people since 2004.
Ties with Washington will be a key issue in Sharif’s tenure, particularly as NATO withdraws the bulk of its forces from neighbouring Afghanistan by the end of next year after more than 12 years of war.
Sharif has said Pakistan will cooperate with NATO as it pulls out, but has warned that Washington must take Islamabad’s concerns about drone strikes seriously.
On the economic front Pakistan has suffered several years of weak growth and its currency has slid in value while foreign exchange reserves have dwindled.
The country is still paying off an $11.3 billion International Monetary Fund loan from 2008. Analysts have said it will need to go back to the lender for more to stave off a balance of payments crisis.
Sharif painted a bleak picture of the nation’s finances but said his government was determined to put things right.
“People should know that the country’s economy is in a very bad state which is beyond imagination and we have to make payments worth trillions,” he said.
“But I will not rest nor will I let any member of my team do so until we are able to improve the economic situation.”
China’s new Premier Li Keqiang met Sharif during a visit to Islamabad a fortnight ago, and linked growth in his country’s restive western region to that in Pakistan.
On Wednesday Sharif said they had agreed to develop a road and rail network connecting the western Chinese city of Kashgar to Gwadar, the port in southwest Pakistan recently taken over by China.
“This plan will greatly economically benefit Pakistan’s northern areas as well as all the four provinces,” Sharif said.
In Wednesday’s National Assembly session, Sharif took 244 votes beating Amin Faheem, of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) who took 42 and Javed Hashmi of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party with 31.
The new premier has said tackling energy shortages, which rob the economy of up to four percent of GDP, will be a priority and he has vowed to build new power plants.
Years of mismanagement, under-investment and corruption in the power sector have led to blackouts of up to 20 hours a day in the blistering heat of summer, when temperatures reach up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N scored a comfortable win in the May 11 general election as PPP was routed, blamed by voters for five years which saw the hated power shortages worsen and militancy continue almost unabated.
But the very fact that the PPP completed its five-year term was seen as important in a country that has suffered three military coups and been ruled for more than half of its 65-year of history.