• Insiders say ex-PM has ‘serious legal challenges to overcome’
• Party confident supreme leader’s presence will give political boost
LONDON: After four years in self-imposed exile, a date for the return of former prime minister and PML-N supreme leader Nawaz Sharif has finally been set.
The elder Sharif will return to his hometown of Lahore on October 21, his brother Shehbaz Sharif confirmed to Dawn on Tuesday, saying that the logistics of which airline he will take to make the journey back home were yet to be finalised.
It is being said that a grand welcome is in the works for the party supremo, who left the country in the middle of his jail term on medical grounds in 2019. But sources, who have met the former prime minister over the last few months, said that he has no rosy view of what will happen after his return: he is aware of the country’s political, economic and security challenges as well as the palpable public anger at rising costs, a battered rupee, and a lack of stability.
Mr Sharif knows his party has lost an enormous amount of political capital in his absence. He also has serious legal challenges to overcome, and the matter of his lifetime disqualification from politics to challenge. And despite his main political rival being behind bars for the foreseeable future, Mr Sharif knows the next election is not going to be a cakewalk.
In the past four years, PML-N leaders have rushed to and from London to get the elder Sharif’s guidance on key political issues. As prime minister, his brother Shehbaz also made multiple trips to London to seek his counsel.
‘Country needs healing’
“We are really looking forward to his return,” Ahsan Iqbal told Dawn over the phone. “The country needs healing, the country needs a collective effort, and it is only a statesman like Nawaz Sharif who can reach out to all political groups and provide leadership to all institutions to work in harmony. Pakistan needs synergy.”
How will Nawaz contend with the enormous support base of the PTI chairman, who despite his incarceration, remains popular? “We have to reach out to our critics,” said Mr Iqbal. “People who were deceived by Imran Khan, who were sold a dream and misled into seeing a mirage.”
PML-N leader Khawaja Asif, who is in London and met Nawaz on Tuesday, is well aware of the challenges that will face his leader as he returns. He also knows that the Imran fever is far from dead.
“But I believe in the Nawaz Sharif effect. His return will make a difference. He will engage people, he will connect with them and hopefully to some extent eradicate the hatred that has been injected into our politics.”
Mr Asif said Nawaz Sharif will challenge his lifetime disqualification in the courts. He also echoed Nawaz’s words on holding former COAS Bajwa and ISI chief Faiz accountable — something Mr Nawaz has said privately and publicly in the last two years.
Mr Asif said the party will not back down from this accountability demand. “We will say it on every forum. What they did to the country and to the economy is a crime. And they have to own it.”
When asked about the overbearing presence of the military establishment since the PDM government came to power, Mr Asif he said, “If the economic situation improves then our political culture will strengthen. The weakness of our political structure is because of a poor economy.” He also said Mr Nawaz will not back down from the party’s slogan of “vote ko izzat do”.
Mr Iqbal echoed a similar sentiment, saying, “It has been proven beyond a shadow of doubt that he [Nawaz] was the victim of a conspiracy to disqualify him. A conspiracy by judges and generals of that time who dislodged a delivering government to bring an inexperienced, egoistical, incompetent leader — because their wives and children were his fans.”
‘No easy solution’
But even Mr Iqbal admits there is no easy solution to the country’s challenges. “Right now, no one has a magic wand. The important thing is that Nawaz Sharif has unified the country in the past to fight terrorism through NAP, he will have to do the same for an economic national action plan.”
Jugnu Mohsin, a former MPA who was allied to the PML-N, tells Dawn in London, “Mian Nawaz Sharif is deeply hurt at the treatment that has been meted out to him by the state. He is also disappointed at the loss of his political capital, flowing from bad strategic decisions taken by the outgoing PDM government.
However, he is concerned about his legacy and wants effective power, not an empty office, to apply his vision of economic recovery and regional cooperation.“
“He is aware of the enormity of the challenge and yet unsure of how much support he can get from the state for implementation of the same. Insecurities have been created by the state and circumstances over many years, and Pakistan’s political leadership has been so reduced over time that its ability to reform has been compromised. But if anyone can help make a new beginning at this time, it is Mian Nawaz Sharif,” added Ms Mohsin.
Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2023