ISLAMABAD: Three-time former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived in Lahore on Saturday to kick off an election campaign after four years of living in London in self-imposed exile.
Sharif touched down in Islamabad for a few hours on Saturday afternoon before flying onward to Lahore, where huge crowds of supporters awaited him at the Minar-e-Pakistan monument.
“Tens of thousands of people are here at Minar-e-Pakistan to welcome their leader as they know he is the one who would steer Pakistan out of economic and political crises,” Talal Chaudhry, a senior leader of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party and the organizer of Saturday’s rally, told Arab News.
Sharif’s last three terms as prime minister in 1990-93, 1997-99, and 2013-17 ended before he could complete his tenures, as he was removed by a military-backed president in 1993, ousted in a military coup in 1999 and disqualified by the Supreme Court in 2017. The 2018 election was won by the party of now-jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Ahead of his return on Saturday afternoon, Sharif was granted protective bail by the Islamabad High Court, an order under which authorities cannot arrest him until he himself appears before a court on Oct. 24.
Sharif returns hoping to lead his PML-N party to victory in the upcoming general elections, due in January, and as Pakistan faces multiple security, economic and political crises.
“Today, I am returning to Pakistan after four years and I am feeling very happy,” Sharif told reporters at Dubai airport before boarding his flight to Islamabad. “When I left Pakistan four years ago, I wasn’t happy at all. But today I am.”
He said that the key challenge before him was improving Pakistan’s economic situation, adding that the election commission would decide if general elections should be held in January or delayed further.
“They are the competent authority to make such decisions. Today, we have a fair election commission and it will make the best decision.”
Chaudhry said: “This is a historic moment … Nawaz Sharif knows how to address the economic issues of Pakistan and he will do it.”
Sharif’s last term as PM ended in 2017 when he was disqualified by the Supreme Court over allegations regarding his personal wealth. In 2018, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in a corruption case involving purchases of luxury apartments in London. The same year, he got seven years’ jail in another case involving his failure to prove the source of funds to set up a steel mill.
Sharif was released from jail on medical bail in March 2019 and in November that year was allowed to go to London for treatment. He has since lived in the UK until his return to Pakistan on Saturday.
It is widely believed that his return has been made possible through a deal with the Pakistan military, which often pulls the strings of politics in Pakistan and has ruled the country directly for almost half of its history. Sharif’s party has repeatedly denied a deal with the army over his return, while the military has not commented on the matter.
Sharif’s PML-N party became hugely unpopular after the removal of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan from the prime minister’s office in a no-trust vote in April 2022.
Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz Sharif, replaced Khan and though he failed to improve the economy, he saved Pakistan from default by securing a $3 billion IMF deal. His tenure ended in August and Pakistan is now governed by a caretaker administration that is constitutionally mandated to oversee elections.
Khan, arguably the most popular politician in the country, is in jail after being convicted in a case related to not declaring assets earned from the sale of state gifts during his term as PM from 2018-22. The conviction has effectively put Khan out of the race in the next election as convicted persons cannot run for public office as per Pakistani law.
There are dozens of other legal cases against Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party faces a widening crackdown that has seen hundreds of his supporters and members arrested over violent protests in May. Many of his oldest and closest aides have announced they are quitting politics or joining other parties.
Khan says the cases against him are fabricated and politically motivated, and that his associates are being forced out of the PTI under duress by the military, in a maneuver to dismantle his party before elections and pave the way for Sharif’s party to come to power. The army denies this.
Many independent analysts expect fresh crisis in Pakistan if fair polls are not organized, and question the legitimacy of an election without Khan or one that does not offer his PTI a fair chance, or gives the PML-N undue advantage.
“We will see after the election regulator announces the election schedule,” political commentator Dr. Hassan Askari Rizvi said, “if a level playing field is available to all contesting candidates and parties.”