How Nawaz Sharif’s Homecoming Could Revamp Pakistan’s Politics

Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister of Pakistan who was ousted and convicted of corruption in 2017, returned to his homeland on Saturday after four years of self-imposed exile in London, setting the stage for a political comeback ahead of the general elections in January.

Mr. Sharif, the supremo of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the main opposition party, was greeted by thousands of supporters at the Islamabad airport and then boarded to Lahore, his political stronghold to demonstrate a massive power show at the Greater Iqbal Park.

I have come back to save Pakistan,” he told the cheering crowd. “I have come back to restore democracy and the rule of law. I have come back to end the tyranny and oppression of the selected government.”

Mr. Sharif was sentenced to 10 years in prison by an accountability court in July 2018, in a case stemming from the Panama Papers leak that revealed his family’s ownership of luxury apartments in London. He was arrested upon his arrival in Pakistan from London, however, in October 2018, he was released on bail by the Islamabad High Court, which suspended his sentence pending an appeal. In November 2019, he was allowed to leave the country for medical treatment abroad after securing permission from the courts and the government. Since then, Mr. Sharif has been living in London. 

In this chaotic scenario of political instability, the return of Nawaz Sharif, the three-time former prime minister and leader of the PML-N, after four years of self-imposed exile, has injected a fresh air of hope and optimism into the political landscape of Pakistan. However, his return has also raised speculation about whether he has struck a deal with the powerful military or the caretaker government to avoid arrest or further prosecution.

Both the military and the caretaker government have denied any such arrangement. The caretaker prime minister, Mr. Kakar, said on Saturday that his government had no soft corner for Mr. Sharif or any other political party and that it was committed to holding free and fair elections.

Sharif’s return is not only a personal triumph for him, but also a strategic move for his party, which hopes to capitalize on his popularity and charisma to revive its flagging fortunes ahead of the national elections due early next year. The PML-N, which was once the largest and most powerful political force in the country, has suffered a series of setbacks since Sharif’s ouster, losing several key leaders and lawmakers to defections, arrests, and intimidation. The party has also faced fierce competition from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Khan’s party, which swept to power in 2018 on an anti-corruption and reformist agenda.

However, Khan’s government has failed to deliver on its promises and has been widely criticized for its poor performance, mismanagement, and incompetence. The country’s economy has been in a downward spiral, with soaring inflation, unemployment, debt, and poverty. The government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has also been dismal, with low vaccination rates, inadequate health facilities, and inconsistent policies. The government has also been accused of curbing civil liberties, media freedom, and human rights, as well as undermining the autonomy of institutions such as the parliament, the election commission, and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the anti-graft watchdog.

Sharif has seized this opportunity to present himself as a viable alternative to Khan and his allies. He has launched a scathing attack on the government’s failures and shortcomings, as well as on the role of the military establishment in influencing the political process. Mr. Sharif’s return supposedly has a significant impact on Pakistan’s political landscape, which has been deeply polarized and unstable since the Panama leaks and subsequent PTI’s win in the general election of 2018. 

The PML-N is currently leading in most opinion polls, followed by Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The PML-N claims that it was robbed of its mandate in the 2018 elections by the military and the judiciary and that it will win back its majority in the next elections.

However, Mr. Sharif faces several challenges and uncertainties ahead. He still has to clear his name from the corruption charges and regain his eligibility to contest elections or hold public office. He also has to deal with internal divisions within his party, which has seen some defections and dissent over his confrontational stance against the military.

Moreover, he has to contend with the changing dynamics of Pakistani politics, which have seen the rise of new players and issues since he left the country. Mr. Khan remains popular among many segments of society, especially the youth and urban middle class, who see him as an honest and charismatic leader who can bring about change and development. Mr. Bhutto Zardari, the son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, has also emerged as a formidable opponent, who has inherited his mother’s charisma and legacy and has forged alliances with other opposition parties and regional groups.

The main issues that are likely to dominate the election campaign include the economy, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and the rising inflation and unemployment; the security situation, which has seen a resurgence of militant attacks and sectarian violence; and the foreign policy, which has been strained by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the growing tensions with India over Kashmir.

Sharif’s return has also galvanized his party and its allies in the opposition alliance known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which was formed last year to challenge Khan’s government. The PDM has announced that it will hold a series of rallies across the country to mobilize public support for its cause. The PDM has also vowed to launch a mass movement to oust Khan’s government through protests, resignations from parliament, and a long march to Islamabad.

In conclusion, Nawaz Sharif’s return has created a buzz in Pakistani politics. It signals a fair level of confidence in upcoming elections being fair and inclusive. His return home symbolizes the possibility of political normalcy returning to the country. However, it remains to be seen how much impact his return will have on Pakistani politics as a whole.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Iqra Awan
Iqra Awan is a Research Fellow at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
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