Pakistan’s king of comebacks looks set to win again

Feb 2: Pakistan’s former three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif only returned from exile last year but is now the clear front-runner to win the 8 February election.

Few could have predicted his return to the top, despite his dominance in Pakistani politics these past three decades.

His last term ended in him being convicted of corruption, and the time before that, he was toppled in a military coup.

Still, he appears on the brink of making another successful comeback, a dramatic turnaround for someone who had long been viewed as an opponent to Pakistan’s powerful military.

“He’s a top candidate to be the next premier not because he’s wildly popular – he certainly is – but more so because he’s played his cards right,” says analyst Michael Kugelman, the South Asia Director at the Wilson Center think tank.

Sharif’s arch-rival and former Prime Minister Imran Khan – previously backed by the military – is now the one locked up in jail, his popular party restricted across the country.

What’s his story?

One might say that Sharif is the king of comebacks. He’s certainly done it before.

Ousted from his second term in a 1999 military coup, he returned in the 2013 parliamentary elections, staging a triumphant comeback to become Prime Minister for a record third term.

That was a historic moment for the country, as it was the first transition from one democratically elected government to another since independence in 1947.

AFP, Sharif enjoyed widespread support in the 2013 election

But Sharif’s last period in office was marred by upheavals – starting with a six-month opposition blockade of the capital Islamabad and ending with court proceedings over corruption allegations which eventually led to the Supreme Court disqualifying him in July 2017. He resigned shortly afterwards.

In July 2018 he was found guilty of corruption by a court in Pakistan and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Two months later, Islamabad’s high court suspended the sentences and ordered his release, pending the conclusion of the appeals process.

He then fled to the UK, where he’d been living in exile for the past four years until his return last October.

Even in absentia though, he has been one of the country’s leading politicians for the past 35 years.

Early years

Nawaz Sharif was born into the family of a prominent Lahore industrialist in 1949 and made his mark in politics representing an urban constituency.

He first came to national prominence during the early days of Gen Zia’s martial law, serving as Punjab province’s finance and then chief minister from 1985-1990.

Observers recall him as not being a particularly impressive political figure but said he nonetheless proved himself an adept administrator. He became prime minister in 1990, but was dismissed in 1993, clearing the way for the then-opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, to form a government.

Owner of Ittefaq Group, a leading steel mill conglomerate, he is among the country’s wealthiest industrialists.

A protégé of military leader Gen Zia ul-Haq – who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988 – Mr Sharif is perhaps best known outside Pakistan for ordering the country’s first nuclear tests in 1998.

Military coup

After becoming prime minister again in 1997 with a comfortable majority, Mr Sharif appeared to dominate the political landscape and exerted a powerful hold over all the country’s major institutions – apart from the army.

Then, frustrated by opposition in parliament, he tried to pass a constitutional amendment that would have enabled him to enforce Sharia law. He also confronted other power centres – a mob of his supporters ransacked the Supreme Court and he tried to rein in Pakistan’s powerful military.

But Sharif’s overthrow in 1999 by then army chief Pervez Musharraf showed how dangerous it was for any politician to attempt to curtail the military’s influence in Pakistan.

Sharif was arrested, jailed and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of hijacking and terrorism. He was also convicted of corruption and banned for life from political activities.

AFP, Then army chief Pervez Musharraf ousted Nawaz Sharif in 1999

But an alleged deal, brokered by the Saudis, saved him and other family members from being put behind bars. Mr Sharif and 40 members of his family were exiled to Saudi Arabia for what was supposed to be a period of 10 years.

Owen Bennett-Jones, BBC Islamabad correspondent at the time, recalls that when Mr Sharif was removed from power, many Pakistanis expressed great relief, describing him as corrupt, incompetent and power-hungry.

Corruption allegations

Sharif’s first time in the political wilderness lasted until his triumphal return to Pakistan in 2007 following a deal with the military.

Back in Pakistan, he patiently bided his time in opposition. His party won about a quarter of parliamentary seats in the 2008 elections.

Though tipped to win the 2013 elections he surprised many with the scale of his victory. He saw off a spirited challenge from the party of former cricketer Imran Khan, who became prime minister after him, in politically crucial Punjab province.

But after assuming power in 2013, Sharif faced a six-month blockade of Islamabad by Mr Khan’s PTI party which accused him of rigging the elections.

There were public accusations that the blockade had been launched at the instigation of some officials in the military’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Analysts believe the military establishment wanted to put Sharif under pressure to prevent him from expanding trading ties with India – a process begun under the previous government.

Sharif had promised in his third term to turn Pakistan into an “Asian tiger”, with new infrastructure and a government with “zero tolerance for corruption”.

But problems multiplied and the only economic highlight – the Chinese-funded $56bn China-Pakistan economic corridor- has been mired in the country’s fragile economy with only some projects delivered so far.

In 2016, the Panama Papers leaks unleashed a new threat for the prime minister which resulted in claims of corruption being investigated by the Supreme Court.

The allegations related to his family’s ownership of apartments in an upmarket area of central London, with questions being raised over the money trail that led to the acquisition of those properties.

Sharif denied all wrongdoing and called the charges politically motivated.

However, on 6 July 2018 a court in Pakistan found him guilty of corruption and sentenced him – in absentia – to 10 years in prison. When the sentence was announced he was in London where his wife was receiving medical treatment.

Sharif’s daughter and son-in-law were also convicted.

Opportunity strikes

The former leader chose to stay in London as his rival Imran Khan ruled the country.

But Khan’s term in power was also turbulent and his relationship with the military deteriorated.

In 2022, Khan was ousted in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence paving the way for Sharif’s party, helmed by his younger brother Shehbaz, to take charge.

Sharif has been tilting to get back into power even since Khan’s fall, stepping up political engagements.

He flew home in 2023 – a historic return – and in the months since has managed to dislodge all the legal cases that were still outstanding against him.

EPA, Sharif lawyers and supporters celebrate after he was granted bail by the Islamabad High Court before his return

His path is clear to retake power if his party wins the most votes.

Not that they’re a shoo but there’s a lot of resentment against Mr Sharif and his party, who are blamed for Pakistan’s economic misery. Sharif is also heavily tarnished by his corruption accusations.

“They are going to win it but no party ever comes in with an absolute majority, apart from Sharif once,” said Dr Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Asia-Pacific programme.

“Everything points to him coming in as prime minister, or head of the largest party,” she said, but added that it was uncertain what type of working majority he might have.

Will he get a fourth term as PM?

It is a turbulent, volatile time in Pakistan politics and Mr Sharif is presenting himself as an experienced leader with a track record of three premierships.

He’s promising to stabilise the economy and “right the ship” in Pakistan.

But analysts are still wary.

“Sharif’s supporters will hope his narrative of stability, experience, and dependability will get him votes- and also make the army comfortable with him, or at least comfortable with his party,” says Kugelman.

He has several issues to navigate – not least an economy in crisis, for which his party is largely blamed, and widespread feelings the vote will not be fair because his main opponent is locked up.

“He is struggling because his party, led by his brother, was a senior partner in the former coalition government, which had to implement a series of economic policies which have exacted a very high toll,” says Dr Shaikh. “Sharif and his party have been blamed for the economic misery if not the crisis that engulfs the country.”

And then there’s the military, which has a big say in how Pakistan is run.

While abroad, the ex-PM had been very vocal on occasion against the armed forces.

In particular, he blamed an ex-head of the feared ISI intelligence agency and the former army chief of staff for political instability in the country, charges they denied.

He also strongly criticised the nation’s judiciary, accusing judges of collusion and saying he had been the victim of “bogus cases”. This, he said, had resulted in a crippled democracy that hadn’t let any of Pakistan’s prime ministers complete their constitutional tenure in office.

REUTERS, Sharif’s rival Imran Khan is now in jail, mired in court cases he says are politically motivated

The military has never breathed a word on whether it prefers Sharif or Khan or any other political leader – stating on record that it does not get involved in politics.

But to analysts, it would appear he has done a deal now with the military to facilitate his return.

“The fact that he’s received so much legal relief since returning home proves that he’s back in the good graces of a powerful military that exerts heavy influence over the judiciary,” says Kugelman.

He notes the “great irony” of Sharif’s success; at the moment he’s riding high but he used to constantly spar with the military.

“[But] in Pakistan, when you’re a political leader and have the army behind you, your chances of electoral success tend to be higher.”

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