By Asif Shahzad and Mubasher Bukhari
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -Pakistan’s three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif kick-started his party’s campaign for next year’s election on Saturday after arriving home from four years of self-imposed exile in London, promising to tackle record inflation.
“I want to serve this nation,” said the 73-year-old veteran politician in his address to thousands of his supporters at his eastern hometown of Lahore.
“My only desire is to see this nation prosper,” he said after he compared today’s essential goods prices with his last tenure before he was ousted in 2017.
He promised to work toward economic recovery, without laying any plans, saying: “We will control inflation.”
Earlier, he landed in a chartered plane at Islamabad airport where he signed and filed appeals against the convictions he was jailed for before he left the country in 2019.
Sharif had not set foot in Pakistan since leaving for London in 2019 to receive medical treatment while serving a 14-year prison sentence for corruption. His convictions remain in force, but a court on Thursday barred authorities from arresting him until Tuesday, when he is to appear in court.
While he cannot run for or hold public office because of his convictions, his legal team says he plans to appeal and his party says he aims to become prime minister for a fourth time.
Sharif’s biggest challenge will be to wrest back his support base from his main rival, Khan, who despite being in jail remains popular following his ouster from the premiership in 2022.
Khan, too, is disqualified from the election because of his August graft conviction, which he has appealed.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan, a nation of 241 million people, is experiencing the impact of an economic crisis that has worsened during the 16-month rule of Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, who led a coalition government after Khan’s removal.
The elder Sharif has a record of pursuing economic growth and development. When he was removed as premier in 2017, Pakistan’s growth rate was 5.8% and inflation was around 4%. In September, inflation was more than 31% year-on-year and growth is projected to be less than 2% this financial year.
“Things have worsened to the extent that people have to chose either to pay their electricity bills or feed their kids,” the elder Sharif told the Lahore rally. “It has become impossible for people to pay bills. People are committing suicide.”
Rising living costs have imposed severe pressures on many Pakistanis after the younger Sharif’s coalition government had to agree to harsh fiscal adjustments to resume funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had suspended payments after Khan scuttled a deal in his last days in office.
“Inflation has killed me and my family financially. I closed my shop because of losses,” said Raheel Sarwar, 40, at the rally.
Nawaz Sharif has said he was ousted from government at the behest of the powerful military after he fell out with top generals, who play an outsized role in Pakistani politics.
He says the military then backed Khan in the 2018 general election. Khan and the military deny this.
The military and Khan fell out in 2022, and over the last few months they have been involved in a bruising showdown, which has afforded Sharif some political space.
The military denies that it interferes in politics.
“An evergreen rule about Pakistani politics is that your chances of taking power are always greater when you’re in the good books of the army,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.
“Over his long political career, Sharif’s relationship with the military brass has blown hot and cold. It’s now in a relatively cordial phase, and he stands to benefit politically.”
(Reporting by Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore; Editing by William Mallard and David Holmes)