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Will Nawaz Sharif's return shake up Pakistani politics?

Haroon Janjua in Islamabad
October 20, 2023

Pakistan's former PM Nawaz Sharif returns from exile in London three months before a general election. Can he overturn a graft charge and wrestle back sufficient support for his party to secure a fourth term in office?

Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (R) beside his daughter Maryam Nawaz (L) during an event held to welcome him in Lahore on October 21, 2023
Nawaz Sharif's homecoming has kick-started a campaign for general elections slated to be held in JanuaryImage: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's former three-time prime minister, returned to his homeland on Saturday following four years of voluntary exile in London.

Sharif traveled to the British capital in 2019 for medical treatment amid a seven-year prison term on the condition that he returns when fit to do so, but he did not return to Pakistan to complete his sentence.

The 73-year-old, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, or PML-N, claimed the charges, the hastily convened trial and his subsequent conviction and imprisonment were politically motivated.

Overturning Sharif's convictions

Sharif, considered one of the most significant Pakistani politicians, has never completed any of his terms.

He was fired for corruption in 1993 before returning to the post in 1997, only to be ousted two years later at the behest of the country's powerful military after he fell out with its top generals.

His third stint ended in 2017, with the Supreme Court disqualifying him from politics for life over graft accusations, charges he denies.

While in London in 2020, a Pakistani court issued a warrant for Sharif's arrest.

Imran Khan: 'Sooner or later they will put me in jail'

Earlier this week, however, the High Court in Islamabad granted Sharif protective bail, which means that authorities cannot detain him before he appears before judges on Tuesday to seek an extension of his temporary bail. The court's decision has smoothed the path for Sharif to enjoy a welcome home rally in his political heartland of Lahore on Saturday without the threat of arrest hanging over him.

Sharif cannot run again for election or hold public office because of his convictions, even though his party has said he aims to become prime minister for a fourth time. His daughter, Maryam Nawaz, said that he will seek to overturn the corruption conviction so that he can lead his party in national elections expected in January 2024.

Bowled out by Imran Khan

Sharif seeks to wrestle voters back from his main political rival, Imran Khan, who is serving a three-year prison sentence in a graft case.

The former cricketer was ousted in April 2022 after a no-confidence vote but is still considered the country's most popular politician with a huge following. Pakistan has been in grave political turmoil since Khan's ouster as the prime minister.

Sharif's homecoming is widely expected to transform the current political landscape in the South Asian country.

"This is a huge moment and a big development," Maiza Hameed, a lawmaker from the PML-N party, told DW. "He could not be arrested on his return and will directly address a rally in Lahore on Saturday."

Nawaz Sharif leaves from a property in west London
Sharif is returning to Pakistan for the first time since leaving for London in 2019Image: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

Will the 'Lion of Punjab' serve a fourth term?

However, some of Sharif's opponents think that his homecoming is somewhat of a farce.

"Sharif predominantly made a mockery of the law of the land by presenting fake medical reports, leaving for treatment and ended up being found in high-end shopping malls," Zulfikar Bukhari, Imran Khan's advisor on international media and affairs, told DW.

Sharif plans to revive his party politics amid Pakistan's worst economic crisis in decades. He hopes to lead his party and woo voters after his younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, led the unpopular coalition government after Khan's ouster.

"Nawaz Sharif's return to Pakistan signals his hopes for a fourth term as prime minister. He is the leader of his party and had run things from London even as his brother was prime minister from April 2022 to August 2023," Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told DW.

"He is the more charismatic of the two and would be the key to reviving his party's political fortunes."

Mending military fences

Some analysts say that Sharif's repatriation comes by special arrangement with the country's powerful military.

"Sharif and his party appear to be back in the good graces of the military, and that critical backing is the trump card that the PML-N will likely play in its quest to return to power in an electoral environment that otherwise doesn't favor it," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Pakistan's caretaker government, installed to conduct elections, had previously denied any agreement with Sharif and his party.

"His return seems to have the military's backing. However, his chief opponent Imran Khan remains very popular, even though he is in prison and his party has been largely dismantled," underlined Afzal.

According to Bukhari, though, Sharif's support from the state will not, and cannot, win him popularity as a politician. Getting support from within the institutions is one thing, but being acceptable to the public is another.

"If Sharif believes in fair play, or so his party claims, he should ask for free and fair elections and not a managed selection," said Bukhari, adding that Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is Pakistan's most popular party, despite a crackdown against it, "and that's what you call a gain for any political party, unlike PML-N paving its way to power by cutting a deal."

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Edited by: Keith Walker

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon