By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif heads back home on Saturday after four years of self-imposed exile in London, seeking to wrestle back support for his party three months ahead of a general election.
Sharif’s return comes as his main rival, Imran Khan, is in jail, but the cricketer-turned-politician remains popular across Pakistan following his ouster from premiership in 2022.
Sharif “will need to reenergize a support base at a moment when the party’s popularity has taken big hits thanks to Imran Khan’s large vote bank,” said Michael Kugelman, South Asia Institute Director at The Wilson Center.
Sharif, who was ousted in a 1999 coup, is returning to Pakistan for the first time since leaving for London in 2019. He was serving a 14-year prison sentence after being found guilty in two corruption cases before being allowed to travel abroad for medical treatment for a limited time.
The convictions are still in force in Pakistan, but a court on Thursday barred authorities from arresting Sharif until Oct. 24, which is when he is scheduled to appear in court. His lawyer has said he will contest the convictions.
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.
Khan, too, is disqualified from the elections by virtue of his conviction in August, which he has appealed.
The 73-year-old Sharif has said he was ousted at the behest of the country’s powerful military after he fell out with its top generals, who play an outsized role in the politics of the nuclear-armed South Asian nation.
He says the military then backed Khan to help him win the 2018 general election – which both Khan and the military deny.
However, the military and Khan fell out in 2022 and over the last few months the country’s top generals have been involved in a bruising showdown with Khan, which has afforded Sharif some political space.
The military denies that it interferes in politics.
“For Sharif, after the immediate euphoria of his return wears off, he will face an uphill battle. The honeymoon won’t last long,” said Kugelman.
While in exile, Sharif is said to have played a major role in Khan’s ouster and installing a coalition government led by his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif.
Khan led a relentless campaign against his removal, which helped him win huge public support especially with the coalition government caught in a crippling economic crisis that has seen record-high inflation and massive currency depreciation.
Rising living costs have become unbearable for many Pakistanis after the coalition government had to agree to harsh fiscal adjustments to resume funding from International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had suspended payments after Khan scuttled a deal in his last days in office.
Khan’s posture of defying the IMF’s stringent reforms only helped his popularity shoot up.
Sharif has had a track record of pursuing economic growth and public sector development policies. When he was removed as premier in 2017, Pakistan’s GDP growth rate was at 5.8% and inflation was hovering around just 4%.
In September, inflation registered at over 31% year-on-year, and growth is projected to be less than 2% this financial year.
Author and analyst Ayesha Siddiqa believes the economy is where Sharif will start his campaign.
“He needs a far more robust team to run the economy,” she said, but stressed: “His main task is to wipe out Imran Khan’s memory from people’s minds.”
Sharif’s arrival has kick-started a campaign for general elections slated to be held in the last week of January.
“Nawaz Sharif will revive the economy yet again,” read a banner at a train bringing supporters to a rally which he will address in eastern city of Lahore on Saturday.
(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Kim Coghill)