Four years ago Nawaz Sharif left Pakistan, dodging a jail sentence on health grounds as ties with the powerful military soured. Now, the three-time former premier is heading back, prompting speculation his allies brokered a deal with the generals for his return to politics and he may become prime minister again.
(Bloomberg) — Four years ago Nawaz Sharif left Pakistan, dodging a jail sentence on health grounds as ties with the powerful military soured. Now, the three-time former premier is heading back, prompting speculation his allies brokered a deal with the generals for his return to politics and he may become prime minister again.
Sharif, 73, is set to return on Saturday, according to his party and family members. His Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party has picked him as its candidate for prime minister ahead of elections in January that may pit him against another former premier, the populist ex-cricketer Imran Khan.
It’s a remarkable reversal of fortune for Sharif, who was found guilty in two corruption cases in 2018, sentenced to ten years in prison and disqualified from holding public office. It’s also an example of how allegiances can shift in the South Asian nation, where the army often makes or breaks civilian leaders.
“He would not be coming back if he didn’t have a strong sense that the military would not give him trouble,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. His party probably received assurances, he said.
The military hasn’t publicly spoken about Sharif’s return and didn’t respond to Bloomberg requests for comment. PML-N Secretary-General Ahsan Iqbal said the party doesn’t have any issues with the military and is seeking Pakistan’s economic development.
Sharif’s return comes after a turbulent year for Pakistan, which has been crippled by raging inflation and a dollar shortage. The country teetered on the brink of default until the International Monetary Fund stepped in with a bailout loan in July.
It comes as Imran Khan sits in prison after being sentenced to a five-year term for corruption. Khan is widely viewed as having won the nation’s top job with the military’s backing in 2018, but his relationship with the generals worsened after he attempted to influence army appointments, leading to his removal in a no-confidence vote about six months later. He called his supporters to take to the streets, often sparking clashes with the police.
The former cricket star broke a taboo by openly criticizing the military, which has held power either directly or indirectly for most of Pakistan’s modern history. He asked the courts to suspend his prison sentence so that he can contest the elections but he remains in jail for another case and still faces more than 170 cases.
Most of Pakistan’s prime ministers depend on the military’s support to stay in power. But there’s also a history of civilian leaders, including Sharif, clashing with Pakistan’s most powerful institution.
Sharif was ousted three times as prime minister, twice in the 1990s and once in 2017 after a corruption investigation following a Panama Papers leak. In 1999, the military staged a coup after he tried to remove General Pervez Musharraf as army chief. He also angered the military by attempting to build ties with arch-rival India, leading to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi making a surprise visit to Lahore in 2015. He has also criticized the army for supporting militant groups such as the Taliban.
His younger brother, Shehbaz, led a coalition to topple Khan in a no-confidence vote in April last year and then became prime minister. Now party leaders hope Nawaz Sharif will help PML-N extend its grip on power. The army, meanwhile, sees him as a better option than Khan.
“This is the way the military works: it has like an enemy number one and then a bunch of other enemies,” said Omar Waraich, a political commentator and journalist previously covering Pakistan. “The most important thing for them at this point is enemy number one is still Imran Khan. It is not Nawaz Sharif.”
Nawaz Sharif has previously accused the army of orchestrating the court cases against him, which it denies, and replacing him with Khan. Ahead of his return, his lawyers secured his protection from arrest from a court in Islamabad this week.
The veteran politician left London on Oct. 11, where he had been seeking medical treatment since 2019. He stopped in Saudi Arabia for a pilgrimage and then met supporters in Dubai. He’s expected to travel to his home province of Punjab for a welcome rally on Oct. 21.
Pakistan’s rupee has lost a third of its value since Khan was ousted in April 2022, battered by political tensions, raging inflation and tough measures demanded by the IMF as conditions for the bailout. It’s one of the world’s worst-performing currencies over the period.
Sharif’s daughter and political heir, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, has used rallies in the lead-up to her father’s return to tout the politician’s economic credentials.
“Has there been any premier in Pakistan’s history who contained inflation for his 4-years tenure except Nawaz Sharif?” she said at a rally in early October. “It’s not the return of Nawaz Sharif but Pakistan’s better days.”
If Sharif returns as prime minister, he’ll face the fastest inflation in Asia and a public that still largely backs Khan. The former cricket legend’s approval rating is about 60%, compared with about 36% for Sharif, according to a Gallup survey published last month.
His return “is a last-gasp attempt by the PML-N to energize the party and put it in a strong position,”said Wilson Center’s Kugelman.
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