NAWAZ Sharif is set to return to Pakistan today. Other than the likelihood that officials of the National Accountability Bureau will arrest Mr Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz upon their arrival in Lahore, there is a great deal of political and legal uncertainty.

What is clear is that all sides — the caretaker governments in Punjab and at the centre; the PML-N and its supporters; and NAB and the judiciary — must act lawfully and responsibly.

The PML-N has alleged that an undeclared crackdown by the caretaker Punjab government is already under way against its leaders and supporters, and that measures will be taken to prevent the party from marching or gathering in Lahore today.

It is not clear to what extent the PML-N’s allegations are accurate, but there do appear to be ill-advised and unacceptable attempts by authorities in Punjab to curb the PML-N’s political activities ahead of Mr Sharif’s return.

Certainly, the caretaker administrations at the centre and particularly in Punjab have a duty to maintain law and order.

But pre-emptive measures taken against a political party at what ought to be the height of a general election campaign suggest a degree of partisanship and politicisation that a caretaker administration cannot indulge in.

Indeed, the constitutional requirement for and the whole exercise of selecting a caretaker chief minister is to prevent the provincial apparatus from being used by powerful political elements against their opponents.

The caretaker Punjab chief minister, Hasan Askari, ought to immediately clarify his administration’s position on the allegations of the PML-N and issue an order that any steps designed to curb peaceful political activities that have already been taken are to be reversed.

Mr Askari’s stint as chief minister began in controversy, but it had been hoped that as a known public figure and academic, he would exercise his authority carefully and impartially.

Now is the time for Mr Askari to demonstrate that he truly is independent and non-partisan.

There is also a need for the PML-N to guarantee that its political activities today and in the days ahead will remain peaceful.

Mr Sharif is returning to Pakistan after publicly pledging to come back before his last departure to visit his ailing wife in the UK.

While Mr Sharif has been convicted by a NAB court in one accountability reference against him, there is still a lengthy multi-stage appeals process ahead.

Meanwhile, the NAB trial is set to continue. The PML-N must respect the law and not attempt in any way to use street power to try and put pressure on the courts and the state.

It is welcome that Shahbaz Sharif has called for all PML-N supporters to remain peaceful, and it is hoped that Nawaz Sharif will reiterate that message.

Cooler heads and better sense must prevail, especially with a general election to be held days from now.

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2018

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