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EFSAS Commentary

Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan from exile – a repeat of the same damaging political engineering by the establishment


This past weekend Nawaz Sharif yet again returned to Pakistan from a self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom (UK), where he has been evading Pakistani law since 2019. Sharif, who is no stranger to political exile having spent most of the first decade of this century abroad, joined other former Pakistani Prime Ministers, Benazir Bhutto being a notable example, who were hounded and terrorized by the Pakistani military establishment to the extent that they were compelled to choose a life abroad. They only returned to their home country after the establishment deemed it politically expedient or convenient that they do so. While the return of Sharif is being touted by many in Pakistan as a victory for democracy, it is actually a lucid demonstration of exactly how weak and spineless the Pakistani political leadership has been. It is also another reiteration by the military establishment that the route to electoral success in Pakistan passes directly through it, and that as an institution the Army is quite bereft of principles or scruples when it comes to protecting its own primacy and supremacy. Imran Khan, the Army’s former blue-eyed boy till just a couple of years ago, today finds both his political aspirations and his political party torn completely apart by the angry establishment’s brute use of force. Nawaz Sharif, so despised by the Generals just five years ago after having himself been a blue-eyed boy in the 1980s, has once again been welcomed back into the political game. An eventual political winner will emerge when elections are held, but whether democracy would have progressed in Pakistan while the whole democratic exercise was being driven and controlled by the Generals is moot.

There was a conscious attempt by the Pakistani State to play up Sharif’s return on 21 October, and the fact that all courtesies were extended to him upon touching down in Islamabad and heading to his power base of Lahore was a clear sign that the establishment was fully on board. Even the courts, which had been hostile to him in the past, were ready to accommodate his return. As the Pakistani daily Dawn put it in an editorial, “The State awaits (Sharif) with open arms”. Sharif addressed an impressive welcome rally that his party the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had organized, and he said to his supporters – “I want to serve this nation. My only desire is to see this nation prosper”. He made it a point to add that he had no wish for revenge, and that his only aim was to give relief to the people. He called for all institutions to work together.

Nawaz Sharif had resigned as Prime Minister mid-way through his third non-consecutive term when had been sentenced in a corruption-related case in 2017.  The Supreme Court of Pakistan disqualified Sharif in a case triggered by the ‘Panama Papers’ leaks that related to his family’s offshore holdings. Sharif has always maintained his innocence and accused the former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry of orchestrating a coup against him and rigging the 2018 general elections to install Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in power. Sharif, who was serving a seven-year prison sentence, later flew to London in November 2019 for medical treatment after the Islamabad High Court granted him bail. Following initial medical treatment in London, Sharif opted to stay back there and bide his time. He launched frequent verbal attacks against the military establishment and called for the Pakistan Army to honor the people’s mandate and stop political engineering.

The timing of Sharif’s return was dictated by the turbulent politics and economic disarray Pakistan has dug itself into. The Imran Khan – General Bajwa hybrid regime presided over a slump in the economy and shoddy governance, but plodded along till Imran Khan tried to retain General Faiz as the ISI chief, leading to a bitter tussle with General Bajwa that ended in the latter withdrawing the Army’s support to Khan. The opposition parties seized the chance, ousted Imran Khan through a no-confidence move, and installed Nawaz’s brother Shehbaz Sharif as the Prime Minister leading a coalition government. Pakistani-American columnist Mohammad Taqi wrote in his article in The Wire that “Nawaz Sharif was reluctant at first to lend support to that process and wanted the failed Imran-Bajwa enterprise to implode but was convinced by his brother and other opposition leaders to bless it eventually. After Imran Khan’s ouster, Sharif wanted his brother to call fresh elections and capitalize on the former cricketer-turned-politician’s immense unpopularity at the time. But between Shehbaz Sharif and other coalition partners dithering and Imran Khan launching a relentless campaign against his former patrons in the army and the new government, that window of opportunity closed quickly. The coalition government abjectly failed to stymie a spiraling inflation, especially food and oil prices, and a rupee plunging against the US dollar that sapped the people’s purchasing power, making it highly unpopular. Sitting atop the coalition, Shehbaz Sharif squandered the PML-N’s political capital by the fistfuls and was petrified of elections. But with Imran Khan training his guns on the incumbent COAS General Asim Munir, the top brass and Shehbaz Sharif held each other in an ever tighter embrace. This nexus, however, deprived the PML-N of its anti-establishment credentials, which Nawaz Sharif had buttressed since his ouster. Bereft both of performance and a political plank, the PML-N dreaded to face a resurgent Imran Khan at the polls”.

Political analysts believe that the military has yet again warmed up to Nawaz Sharif as it desperately needs an established alternative to the widely popular Imran Khan and his PTI. Zaigham Khan, an Islamabad-based political commentator, opined that “Nawaz Sharif’s re-entry is pivotal for both the military and his party. The military desires his leadership to fill the vacuum left by Imran Khan’s detention and to counterbalance Khan’s ongoing appeal”. Explaining the military establishment’s perspective, Taqi elaborated, “Left with no viable political alternatives, the army obliged. Nawaz Sharif and his family members finally got legal reprieve in one case after another. While the charges against Sharif were trumped-up and politically-motivated, the relief coming his way was also seen as a political rapprochement between the PML-N and the brass. But Nawaz Sharif continued to target General Bajwa and General Faiz for his 2017 ouster, both privately and publicly, which was a red flag for the current brass. It is widely perceived that Shehbaz Sharif was dispatched to London to plead with his elder brother to leave the former generals alone. The Islamabad High court subsequently granted Nawaz Sharif a protective bail”. Sharif’s lawyer Azam Nazir Tarar expressed confidence in a recent interview that “Since he was wrongly convicted, we believe the conviction will be overturned”.

Reactions to Nawaz’s return reflected the depth of feeling on both sides of the political divide. Shehbaz posted on X, “My leader Nawaz Sharif will be among you today, InshaAllah. He is coming back to unite this nation, not to divide it further. He is coming back to spread love among his people, not hatred. He is coming back to help you become a productive citizen, not ammunition for any party or group. He is coming back to put Pakistan back on track”. Imran Khan’s PTI, on the other hand, wrote on X, “A convicted criminal being facilitated in everything! Pakistan’s legal system has been completely destroyed by PMLN!” Dawn reported that the PTI had called Nawaz “the new blue-eyed boy of the system”.

Others cautioned against placing too much hope on Nawaz’s return. Pakistani political scientist Askari Rizvi urged pragmatism when he said, “Sharif’s party celebrates the return of its leader as if he has returned with some magical formula to end all serious economic problems this country faces. It’s not the case, however”. Having returned to Pakistan, Sharif’s first challenge will be to reset and reorganize his own party, which has become beset by internal tensions. Also, Sharif has returned to power politics where there is limited space for him to play. It is still not certain who will eventually become the Prime Minister after elections are held early next year. Sharif’s main competition may not be with Imran Khan, who is already disqualified and convicted in several court cases, or Bilawal Bhutto, who has still not become a favoured choice of the Generals. Ayesha Siddiqa, Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, believes that the real competition for Nawaz will be internal, “with his own brother Shehbaz Sharif, who is believed to be the army’s favourite. According to journalist Nusrat Javeed, people may be seeing Nawaz Sharif’s face, but the crown will be worn by his younger brother”.

Sushant Sareen of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) think tank also noted that “Nawaz Sharif is, however, coming back to a very different Pakistan than the one he left in 2019. The country is sharply polarised, economically bankrupt, and in the midst of a serious jihadist insurgency. The PML-N has lost significant ground to the PTI and Imran Khan, and its support base has shrunk. If Imran Khan is allowed a free hand in the forthcoming general elections, he would sweep the polls. In a recent survey, Imran soars over Nawaz in popularity and the PTI would have left PML-N biting the dust. While Nawaz Sharif is expected to energise his core support base especially in Punjab, the political ground has shifted”. The upcoming elections could indeed be decided in Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab. It is a longtime stronghold of Sharif’s party, but one where Imran Khan had made major inroads. Sharif may now see an opening to win back voters there.

Ayesha Siddiqa believes that Sharif’s return to the country’s politics will be hawkishly watched by an Army Chief who, like one of the former chiefs General Waheed Kakar, is in talks with all parties and may retain the option of bringing someone else to power if Sharif doesn’t work out. She further wrote, “Even the streets are conscious that Sharif has returned as a result of a deal and will have to make compromises to remain in power. This is the dynamics of what columnist Fasi Zaka describes as ‘Nawaz Sharif version 4.0’, in which the former prime minister will have to abandon thoughts of taking any general to court or challenging the army’s power, which has firmly entrenched itself in most state institutions. From the country’s prime anti-corruption organisation, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), to the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), critical institutions are run by serving or retired military officers”.

Writing in The New York Times, Salman Masood described Nawaz as a politician “known for championing civilian leadership and improved relations with neighboring India”. Both Sareen and Siddiqa commented about relations with India. Sareen wrote, “From an Indian perspective, there is a body of opinion that believes that with Nawaz at the helm, there could be some forward movement in bilateral relations. In his one-hour long speech, Nawaz did spend about a minute or two discussing foreign policy and relations with India. Of course, as is their wont, this got the usual suspects in India all excited. But, again, there was nothing new in what Nawaz said that hasn’t already been said earlier, including by Army chiefs. What Nawaz said was that Pakistan can no longer afford to fight with its neighbours and still hope to progress. He said Pakistan had to improve relations with everyone, including India. He sought a respectable and dignified solution to the Kashmir issue and was bold enough to suggest the possibility of an economic corridor linking Pakistan with Bangladesh through India”. Sareen concluded that “there is a chance that if he comes to power, there could be some movement at the bilateral level”.

Siddiqa opined that “this is also Sharif’s opportunity to convince the army to let go of its bias against India and start trade with the larger neighbour. His remark about having peaceful relations with regional neighbours may not necessarily be a challenge to the generals, as they too believe in the idea, but Sharif will have to be mindful he doesn’t get carried away. He will have to learn to not put himself in the driving seat in taking the relations forward. This is definitely an area where he enjoys ample space because the militancy is not a viable option for the army any more. This means that all outstanding disputes will have to be resolved ‘honourably’, as Sharif indicated in his speech, which implies peaceful methods such as dialogue. And Nawaz Sharif is certainly the man for the job”.

In addition to the solutions he can potentially provide for the abundant challenges that he is going to confront if he succeeds in becoming Prime Minister for a fourth time, the milieu surrounding Sharif’s return also presents him with opportunities for both putting the civil-military relationship on a more even keel and cementing his legacy by finding a way to talk peace with India.