Enthusiastic supporters have kicked off preparations to greet Pakistan’s three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who plans to return home next month from London after nearly four years ahead of a crucial national vote.
Several streets in cities across Pakistan’s most populous Punjab province have been plastered with Sharif’s life-sized posters, while rallies are already being organized to announce his much-awaited return.
His center-right Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) plans to gather a crowd of 1 million people at the historic Iqbal Park in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, and the power base of the ex-premier’s party on Oct. 21 – the expected date of his arrival.
His supporters view him as a political messiah of sorts, a man who can pull the embattled South Asian nuclear power out of the biting economic and political crises plaguing it since April last year.
The PML-N, facing growing public anger over its poor handling of the economy during a 16-month tenure with a coalition government that ended in August, is hoping that Sharif can take the helm again in the run-up to the general elections slated for the last week of January.
“Party workers and supporters are indeed very excited, considering the fact he is the only one who can lead the party in this critical situation and make a difference,” Mohammad Zubair, a senior PML-N leader and a close side to Sharif, told Anadolu.
Zubair, who served as governor of the southern Sindh province from 2017 to 2018, said the party is “not in a position” to go into the elections without Sharif.
“There is no chance that the party could go to the polls without him,” he asserted.
‘Won’t be a walk in the park’
Sharif’s supporters count on his track record to woo voters, especially his last tenure from 2013 to 2018, which saw a significant decrease in terrorism, infrastructure development, easing of a lingering power crisis and a relatively stable economy.
Zubair, however, believes the current situation is far more challenging.
“Economic conditions have never been like this before. We must admit that,” he said, adding that the party must come up with a strategy to rekindle hope among people.
“It won’t be a walk in the park.”
A faltering economy and a surging cost of living crisis, exacerbated during the April 2022 to August 2023 stint of Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister, brought the country to the verge of default before it secured a last-minute bailout from the International Monetary Fund in July. His government, though, blamed the previous administration of ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan for the dire economic situation.
A World Bank report last week revealed that over 12 million Pakistanis have fallen below the poverty line over just the past year. Currently, almost 40% of the country’s population of some 240 million is living below the damning threshold.
‘Pile of problems’
Political observers also reckon Sharif will face a “pile of problems” as he tries to revive his party’s dwindling popularity.
According to Aamer Ahmed Khan, a Karachi-based political analyst, the ex-premier has “very little” in his bag to persuade voters in the given circumstances, especially because of the poor performance of the outgoing coalition government.
“At this point, Sharif has very little to offer,” he told Anadolu.
He said the PML-N, like almost all other political parties, is “struggling for a narrative” to use as a base for its election campaign.
The only exception, he added, is Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Khan, whose government was ousted in a no-trust vote in April 2022, is currently serving a jail sentence after being convicted in a graft case.
That, however, has done little to dent his solid base of supporters across the country.
“Nawaz Sharif seems to be unaware of the extent to which on-ground dynamics have changed during his four-year absence,” said Khan.
“He clearly believes that calling for accountability of a couple of generals and judges whom he holds responsible for Pakistan’s economic decline over the past five years will be enough.”
He was referring to Sharif’s recent statements demanding action against former Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, ex-army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, the former head of the ISI spy agency, and another retired supreme court judge.
Sharif accuses these men of being responsible for his ouster in 2017, when he was disqualified by the Supreme Court from holding office, charges that they have denied.
Khan said the PML-N itself is “clearly” against this narrative, as well as Sharif’s continued absence from Pakistan.
“As such, their struggle to find a credible narrative still seems to be a work in progress,” he maintained.
Sharif, who began his political career in the 1980s under a martial law regime, has had a complicated relationship with Pakistan’s powerful army.
Two of his governments – in 1990 and 1997 – were dismissed by then-President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, respectively.
His latest spell in power ended with him losing the right to hold office for life after investigations related to the Panama Papers scandal six years ago.
However, just before its tenure ended, the outgoing Parliament passed a controversial law to limit the lifetime disqualification of lawmakers to five years, clearing Sharif’s path to the ballot.
Over a tumultuous career spanning over four decades, the 73-year-old politician has been arrested multiple times, convicted by courts, jailed, and even forced into exile.
Cases against him have ranged from corruption to the hijacking of a plane, which was related to his orders on Oct. 12, 1999 to refuse landing permission to a Karachi-bound plane carrying Musharraf, who ousted Sharif’s government in a coup later that day.
Sharif flew from jail, where he was languishing after being convicted in a corruption case, to London for medical treatment in 2019 and never returned.
Many people see a friendly liaison between Sharif and “the establishment,” a term widely used in Pakistan to refer to the powerful military.
Khan, the political analyst, disagrees with that impression.
“I don’t think he is on the same page with the establishment. His party may be, but he is clearly not. And that is his party’s primary concern at the moment, not the (legal) cases against him,” he said.
For Hassan Askari, a Lahore-based political analyst, the Pakistani establishment itself is running out of options.
“The establishment is looking for a way out. They themselves have limited options to proceed further, and Nawaz Sharif can benefit from this situation,” Askari told Anadolu.
“It is like being between a hard and a rock place: Imran Khan on one side and Nawaz Sharif and company on the other. Since Khan stands knocked out because of his confrontation with the establishment, Sharif has the advantage.”
According to Askari, Sharif’s recent statements about accountability of retired judges and army officials are widely viewed as an attempt to regain some lost support for his party.
“But considering his past record, you never know,” he added.