As Pakistan’s next prime minister, Nawaz Sharif faces daunting domestic and foreign policy challenges.

While attention is inevitably focused on Sharif’s relations with the United States, India and Afghanistan, the election of a new democratically elected government also opens up new avenues for stronger EU-Pakistan relations.

The EU should move fast to forge stronger and more comprehensive ties with Islamabad, including the convening of a third EU-Pakistan summit to hammer out a new agenda for deeper long-term relations.

Landmark elections – but what happens next?

The landmark elections, marking the first transfer of power between two elected civilian governments in Pakistan, give hope that 67 years after independence, democracy is finally taking root in the South Asian nation of 180 million people.

The EU’s chief election observer, Michael Gahler, has noted “considerable improvements” in the conduct of the polls compared to five years ago as regards voters’ rolls, independence of the Election Commission and   media freedom.  Unlike in 2008, there were also no reports of widespread rigging or bogus polling stations.

Although it’s long hide and seek with democracy may have ended for the moment, Pakistan remains a troubled and fragile state.

Violence and bloodshed marred the election campaign and polling day in in many cities as the Taliban relentlessly pursued their anti-democracy agenda by targeting secular parties, sparing only former cricketer Imran Khan’s Tehreek-I-Insaf party.

Pakistan’s economy is in shambles, with talks expected soon on an International Monetary Fund bail-out package.  Corruption is rampant. The army and security services continue to exert an unhealthy influence over politics and policy.  And relations with the US as well as most neighbouring countries, including India and Afghanistan, remain tense.

Pakistani people deserve credit

There is more to Pakistan than violence, discrimination and economic decline, however.  For almost 7 decades marked by flawed democracy, feudal greed, military misrule and terrorism, the country has worked because of the courage and tenacity of its people, including the millions of Pakistanis who live and work abroad – and send millions of dollars in remittances – to a country they still call home.

Last week’s elections provided additional evidence of the resilience, determination and dynamism of millions of men and women who defied threats of violence, intimidation and centuries-old discrimination to cast their ballots in unprecedented numbers.

No room for generals

Many millions of young Pakistanis voted for the first time.  The turnout of women voters was impressive.  An election commission spokesman said turnout had been around 60%, compared to 44 % in 2008.

Sharif, an industrialist who has been prime minister twice before – his last period in office ending 14 years ago in a military coup followed by his trial and exile – has said generals have no place in politics.  He has also said he will talk to the Taliban in order to end an insurgency which has raged across the country for the last few years.

His dismissal as premier in the 1990s was greeted by relief by many Pakistanis but many are hoping that Sharif has learned lessons from his last time in power.

Certainly, his party has a good record on economic management.

He advocates free-market economics and is likely to pursue privatization and deregulation to revive flagging growth.

Formidable tasks ahead

The tasks he faces are formidable.  Public discontent over endemic corruption is rife; the economy is crippled by chronic power cuts and crumbling infrastructure.  One of Sharif’s first likely tasks will be to negotiate with the IMF for a multi-billion-dollar bailout. To raise domestic revenues, he will have to bite the bullet and increase tax collection.

Sharif’s government faces the challenge of putting tense relations with the US back on an even keel. He has vowed to review Pakistan’s support for America’s “war on terror” but is unlikely to jeopardise 2 billion dollars in annual US aid.  Washington’s support will also be essential if Pakistan is to secure desperately needed aid from the IMF, the World Bank and other global institutions. He will also have to improve ties with Afghanistan and India.

While in office the last time around, Sharif tried to make peace with India but his initiatives were opposed by the army.  There is concern that plans for stronger India-Pakistan trade relations – something that Sharif favours – could once again be jeopardised by an uncompromising army.

Pakistan will have a crucial role to play in ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country in 2014.

Relations with Pakistan’s traditional ally, China will remain strong but Beijing is worried that militant Uighur Muslims are still receiving training in Pakistan.

Hold another EU-Pakistan summit

The EU should lose no time in seeking an upgrade of ties with Pakistan’s new government.  A third EU-Pakistan summit should be organised without too much delay and both sides should move quickly to hammer out a new agenda for deeper long-term relations.

EU foreign ministers admitted earlier this year that the so-called “5-Year Engagement Plan” with Pakistan needed to be reinvigorated through early meetings with the new Pakistani ministers and senior officials, saying progress in such fora could lead to a third EU-Pakistan summit.

There is room for a strategic shift in EU-Pakistan relations from an almost-exclusively trade-focused agenda to a more holistic programme of cooperation.

It’s not just about trade

Certainly, Pakistan needs help to boost its exports to Europe and elsewhere.   The EU has already given Pakistan improved market access by introducing autonomous trade preferences following a WTO waiver.  The hope now is that Pakistan will secure access next year to the GSP Plus scheme for zero-duty, zero-quota exports to the EU.

A strategic dialogue launched earlier this year between Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, and her former Pakistani colleague Hina Rabbani Khar seeks to cover cooperation in areas of trade, investment, human rights, governance, energy, education and socio economic development.

The rhetoric needs to be translated into action.  To change the dynamics of the so-far relatively lukewarm EU-Pakistan relationship, the EU will have to pay more sustained attention to Pakistan.

Once on the periphery of the EU’s Asia policy, Pakistan is climbing slowly up the EU’s foreign policy agenda, mainly because of the strong link with security in Afghanistan, connections between tribal areas in Pakistan and Europe’s “home grown” terrorists and persistent US and British insistence that the EU should help stabilise the country.

A long engagement

The adoption by EU foreign ministers last year of a so-called “5-Year Engagement Plan” aimed at boosting civilian institutions and civil society in Pakistan as well as a commitment to start a strategic dialogue with the country are recent illustrations of stronger EU interest in Pakistan.

It has not always been an easy relationship, however.  Pakistan has used most of its time and energy to lobby for better market access for its textile exports and bristled at EU comments on its treatment of women and minorities.

Volatile politics in Pakistan have also meant the EU has had to constantly adjust and re-adjust its approaches depending on whether the army or civilians are in power.

The EU does not have America’s clout in Pakistan.  The absence of an EU role in providing military support has built up Europe’s credibility with Pakistani civil society but has also meant lack of leverage with the military.

Meanwhile, strong EU-Pakistan economic ties – the EU is Pakistan’s largest trading partner – have also not translated into significant political influence.

The EU needs to be more innovative and creative in forging a new strategy which looks at Pakistan not merely as a developing country, requiring traditional development aid actions, but as a fragile country in transition which needs help and assistance to modernise and reform its flagging economy, reinforce weakened political institutions and to strengthen the rule of law.

Work on supporting the strengthening of democratic institutions and the electoral framework with particular focus on institution building, legislative reform and voter participation will have to continue. Pakistan’s army and security services still need counter-terrorism training to tackle the insurgency and fight radicalisation.

The EU and its member states are beginning to invest time and effort in crafting a multi-faceted strategy capable of responding to the multiple and complex challenges facing Pakistan.

Such actions must continue and expand, with the EU also encouraging closer regional integration in South Asia.  Pakistan will continue to need support from its friends to stay on the democratic path.  Successful elections alone will not anchor democracy in Pakistan.