Newly elected members of Pakistan’s National Assembly were sworn in today, officially marking the first transition of power between democratically elected civilian governments in the nearly 66-year history of the coup-prone country.
Among the steep challenges the legislators will face: massive energy shortages that leave some Pakistanis without power for up to 20 hours a day; a badly ailing economy that might force the Muslim-majority nation to seek an international bailout; and ongoing militant activity by Taliban and other extremists whose violence has killed thousands in the past decade and badly strained Pakistan’s alliance with the United States.
Arriving at the Parliament building in Islamabad on a bright, hot day under tight security, the politicians were immediately mobbed by reporters.
Among those in the spotlight was the incoming prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League-N won the May 11 elections.
“We are facing many challenges, but God willing, we will overcome them,” said Mr Sharif, who twice served as prime minister in the 1990s and was ousted in a 1999 military coup.
The 63-year-old is expected to be sworn in as prime minister in the coming week.
Outgoing speaker of parliament Fehmida Mirza solemnly administered the oath to incoming legislators at noon. Afterward, politicians were called up to the front of the hall one by one to sign documents formalizing their membership.
The PML-N won 176 seats in the 342-member lower house of Parliament and is expected to rule in an alliance with some independent legislators. The previous ruling Pakistan People’s Party was crushed, earning just 39 seats.
Former cricket star Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won 35 seats, and has pledged to act as a strong opposition. Mr Khan, who is still recovering after fracturing three vertebrae and a rib when he fell off a forklift in the last few days of the campaign, did not attend today’s session.
The simple act of the oath-taking was historic in Pakistan, a country of 180 million that was carved out of India in 1947. For most of its history, military coups and other political turmoil prevented elected civilian governments from finishing their terms.
Despite its widely perceived incompetence, the fact that the government led by the People’s Party survived its full five-year term was a significant accomplishment. Pakistanis hope peaceful transfers of powers between civilian leaders become the norm and ultimately lead to more government accountability.
The last time Mr Sharif was prime minister his government was widely reviled to the point where many Pakistanis were happy to see the army kick him out.
But many Pakistanis are now happy he is back and, because of his business background, are especially keen on seeing him move to fix the economy.
Sharif and his advisers are searching for ways to revive the economy without turning to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.
Perhaps the most critical step in that process will be to address the energy crisis, which has been exacerbated by the refusal of many Pakistanis to pay their electricity bills.
How Mr Sharif deals with two other countries – India and the United States - could also define his rule.
India and Pakistan, which are both nuclear-armed, have fought three major wars, but in recent years have tried to improve their relations. Mr Sharif has said he wants those efforts to continue, not least because India could prove a good trading partner.
Dealing with the United States could be in some ways a trickier matter.
While officially a US-ally in the fight against terrorists, Pakistanis have long been at odds on some US tactics, especially drone strikes on Pakistani territory, which Mr Sharif and others have decried as violations of their nation’s sovereignty.
The most recent drone strike came on Wednesday, and the Pakistani Taliban militant group said it killed their deputy leader, Waliur Rehman.
Mr Sharif wants to resolve differences with the Pakistani Taliban through peace talks, but after the recent strike the Pakistani Taliban said they would not participate in any negotiations.