Islamabad: Three-time Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif will return home on Saturday after four years of self-imposed exile, primed to make a political comeback ahead of elections. The South Asian nation is facing overlapping security, economic and political crises ahead of polls already pushed back to January 2024, with Sharif’s primary opponent, the fiercely popular Imran Khan, languishing in jail.
“This is a time for hope and celebration. His return bodes well for Pakistan’s economy and its people,” said Khawaja Muhammad Asif, a senior leader of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party.
Sharif has spent the past several days in Dubai, and will fly from there to the capital Islamabad, then on to Lahore, where his supporters will gather for a welcome home rally, his party has said.
His return has been touted for months by the PML-N, whose leaders hope Sharif’s political clout and “man of the soil” swagger will revive its flagging popularity.
However, the former leader has a conviction for graft and an unfinished prison sentence hanging over him.
Earlier this week, the Islamabad High Court granted protective bail to Sharif until Tuesday, removing the threat of immediate arrest when he lands back in the country.
Sharif has been prime minister three times, but was ousted in 2017 and given a lifetime disqualification from politics after being convicted of corruption.
He served less than a year of a seven-year sentence before getting permission to seek medical care in the United Kingdom, ignoring subsequent court orders to return during former prime minister Imran Khan’s government.
His fortunes changed when his brother Shehbaz Sharif came to power last year and his government oversaw changes to the law, including limiting the disqualification of lawmakers from contesting elections to five years.
Sharif’s return has likely been smoothed by a deal between the military establishment and his party to prevent significant legal hurdles, said analyst Zahid Hussain.
“There was some sort of arrangement with the military establishment; without that he wouldn’t have decided to come back,” he told AFP.
Often draped in a red Gucci scarf, Sharif has seen his political fortunes rise and fall on his relationship with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment — the country’s true kingmakers.
Politicians in Pakistan are often tangled in legal proceedings that rights monitors say are orchestrated by the powerful military, which has ruled the country directly for more than half of its history and continues to enjoy immense power.
Fans call him “the Lion of Punjab”, the eastern and most populous province where his support is strongest, and he is known to parade big cats at extravagant political events drumming up support.
But he faces the tough task of winning over an electorate weary of dynastic politics and a young population that has been captured by Khan’s social-media-savvy party.
“Sharif’s key challenge is first to establish himself and his party as viable options to replace Imran Khan, who is already popular, and secondly to turn around the economy,” said political analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.
(This story has not been edited by Press Exclusive staff and is published from a syndicated feed)