Former three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to return to Pakistan on Saturday, marking the end of his self-imposed exile in London. His return comes ahead of planned general elections, which the military-backed election commission says will take place in the final week of January next year.
Already, assembly elections for two provinces, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, have been illegally delayed since April. A January poll date for elections for the National Assembly would also be in violation of the constitution, according to which they must take place no later than November 7, 2023.
A final date has not been set for elections. But Sharif’s return likely means the polls will take place next year. The ex-prime minister, a convict, has balked at coming home on several occasions over the past 18 months, preferring to wait until his legal hurdles are removed and his party’s return to power is more or less guaranteed.
There are indications the army, his longtime nemesis, has given him those guarantees. But in Pakistani politics, nothing is ever certain.
Nawaz, Khan, and the Army: Trading Places
In 2018, Sharif was convicted on charges related to concealing his wealth and sentenced to a 10-year jail sentence. However, in 2019, the Pakistan Army facilitated his exit from the country, allowing him to be released on bail on medical grounds and leave for London.
Since then, Sharif has been running the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) — now the country’s second-largest party — from his $10 million apartment in London’s posh Mayfair district. In 2018, Transparency International UK recommended the confiscation of the property on the basis of unexplained wealth.
From London, Sharif not only controlled the PML-N remotely, he also took on the army, blaming two top generals — the army chief and head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency — of orchestrating his downfall and bringing ex-cricketer Imran Khan to power as prime minister.
By 2022, Sharif’s agitation would work. In a change of fortune, the then-army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa orchestrated Khan’s removal from power through a vote of no confidence, replacing him with Nawaz’s younger brother, Shehbaz.
The younger Sharif had been seen as more pliant and capable, but his brief tenutre as prime minister was a disaster for the PML-N, with inflation soaring to nearly 40 percent and the party’s reputation tanking.
Proving Khan’s Point
Nawaz’s return to Pakistan has typically been a boon for the party’s fortunes, as he anchors the party’s electoral campaign. But he returns to a Pakistan changed by the economic and political turmoil since Khan’s ouster.
Today, it is Khan, not Sharif, who is Pakistan’s most popular politician. Khan, who has been imprisoned since being convicted on concealment of wealth charges in August, has eaten into Sharif’s base, the urban regions of Punjab — home to the largest cluster of National Assembly seats.
Sharif’s recent election campaigns have centered on returning to power and setting Pakistan right after being deposed by the army. This time around, he will have difficulty promoting that narrative given that his brother served as the head of an army-backed government and his own return to Pakistan will have been facilitated by the army.
The Pakistani public will be watching Sharif’s reception this weekend for conclusive evidence of a deal with the military. Legally-speaking, Sharif is a convict. The law says that he should be arrested upon arrival. But his party says he’ll address a grand rally in the city of Lahore this weekend.
If Sharif is allowed to run an election campaign as a convict, then the real winner — at least in terms of the battle of narratives — may be Khan. He’s alleged that “they” — the other “corrupt” politicians and the army — are all in cahoots to keep him out of power. With Khan behind bars and inflation forecast to remain well into the double digits into 2025, the ex-cricketer may win the long game — if he manages to stay alive.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.