'Coming back was a political necessity': analysts react to Nawaz and Maryam's return

What does the Sharifs' decision to come back mean for their and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz's political futures?
Published July 13, 2018

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz returned to Pakistan Friday evening, following their conviction last week by an accountability court in the Avenfield reference case, in which the judge ruled that Nawaz, Maryam and her husband Captain Safdar owned assets beyond known income.

They were respectively handed jail sentences of 10, seven and one year each.

What does the Sharifs' decision to come back mean for their and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz's political futures? How has the state handled the duo's return? Our analysts weigh in.

'The PML–N today is no longer the docile PML–N of 1999' — Adnan Rasool

Did the government go overboard in its reaction to the Sharifs' return?

The caretaker government went all out with its preparations to arrest two people who willingly came back to get arrested unlike a commando who is still refusing to come back to face treason charges.

On the same day as over 100 people perished in Balochistan, the state was more interested in curbing protests rather than providing security to its citizens.

And this is what will stick with the people going into the last 10 days of the election season: the state chose to go after the Sharifs rather than focus on other things.

The over-reaction by the caretaker Punjab government, highlighted by analysts like Nusrat Javed in the last few days, was not necessary. All this has done is to give the victimhood story line the PML–N has been pushing, more credence.

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In short, a smarter caretaker government would have simply cordoned off the airport instead of shutting the city down, arrested both Maryam and Nawaz in the lounge and shuttled them to Rawalpindi.

It could have been a simple and clean arrest but instead, the state always somehow manage to muck up their best plans and turn the same people they want to vilify into heroes.

What do you make of the Sharifs' decision to come back?

For Nawaz and Maryam, the decision to return was important. Ever since 1999, Nawaz has been scarred by the taunts that he fled the first chance he got. So, this time around, he needed to do this to wash away that black mark.

For Maryam, this is the tipping point where she can legitimately play herself to be like the person she has modeled her career on i.e. Benazir Bhutto.

Whether they spend the whole jail time they have been given is up for debate, but what this whole thing has shown is that this PML–N is no longer the docile PML–N of 1999/2000.

Another factor being ignored right now is that the party is now crafting a social identity for itself beyond just a political party.

The party may have been founded by the patronage of a dictator, but it has essentially built the perception now as the only one to stand up to the iron-fisted interventions of the powers-that-be.

'Coming back was a political necessity' — Arifa Noor

How has the government handled Nawaz and Maryam's return? Was such a reaction necessary?

The administration's reaction was an overkill; they could have done without it.

Unfortunately, this is how the state in Pakistan is structured and this how it functions each time there is any kind of a protest.

Whoever is in power — or whoever controls the state — will do something like this. So, for example, if Nawaz Sharif is leading the long march to Islamabad and the PPP is in power, they would do something similar — as they did back in 2009.

When the PTI wanted to hold the second dharna in Islamabad, this is how the PML-N reacted.

Now when the PML-N wanted to collect a crowd, the caretaker setup reacted this way.

Related: What are the ways the Sharifs could appeal the Avenfield verdict?

It is partly because of our colonial legacy that you have these laws in place, like Section 144, and the how the police functions — it is basically to control the public rather than to provide a service.

The moment they feel a political threat, they put that entire infrastructure in motion. So, the only thing that changes is who the victim is and who is the enforcer.

What do you think of the Sharifs' decision to even come back?

Well, I think it was a political necessity. They have been in power for the past five years. They have stakes in Pakistan.

This is no longer a military dictatorship, so if they had stayed away, they would have created too many legal and political problems.

Nawaz wants to pass his political legacy to his daughter, so if they hadn’t returned, they would have lost all of this.

In 1999, Nawaz went in exile. Can you compare and contrast that moment with today?

1999 was very different because they were imprisoned under the military dictatorship. It was life imprisonment.

Obviously they were kept in Attock jail, so they thought it was safer to leave. Perhaps that experience has shaped their decision because they realised that, once they left, their party was weakened completely.

'Nawaz did not have any choice' — Zahid Hussain

What do you make of the government's handling of the situation today?

I think the government seems to have reacted in panic initially, and I don’t think there was any need for that, even if the crowd was surging.

This is typical and has not happened for the first time. Each time this kind of thing happens, they take what they call ‘preventive measures’: bringing in containers, blocking roads.

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So I think, probably, the caretaker government also resorted to the same thing, and later on, when they realised, they removed the containers and allowed people passage, and it was all peaceful and nothing happened.

So, I think it was unnecessary to take this kind of immediate action.

What's your take on Nawaz's decision to come back?

I think he did not have any choice. He had only 10 days left for the appeal and so he had to come. I think probably he is hoping that, when he goes to appeal, the sentence may be suspended.

That’s his best option.

Compare this to 1999?

I think it was a very different situation then. There was a military government and they were convicted under that, so they basically decided to make a deal and leave the country.

But this time, it was different — an accountability court convicted them and they were already out of the country when it happened. It’s not like they were arrested here and then convicted. So that was a completely different situation.


Meanwhile, Shahzaib Khanzada emphasised the political significance of optics and the visualisation of Maryam and Nawaz Sharif's return.

"It is vital to notice Maryam and Nawaz’s body language which is important in politics. It seems they are aware that they need to appear confident, because this optic is necessary."

"Every expression on their faces will make headlines and be analysed."

Geo News' Mazhar Abbas made an important point that "despite road blocks, protesters arrived in some way to show their presence. Nawaz has corrected a historic mistake of leaving for Saudi Arabia in 1999."

"Today they have returned and sent a message to the people that they have come back to face the sentences against them."