Nawaz’s return

Published September 14, 2023

AFTER living in London in self-exile for the last four years, PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif is finally set to return to Pakistan next month. This is welcome news.

This paper has time and again called on Mr Sharif to return and face political and legal realities and end the remote management of his party — both when the PML-N was in opposition and then in government.

That he is finally ready to return to the country and engage with his party and supporters face to face will come as a relief to his party’s second-tier leadership that has spent the last year making too many trips to London to seek Mr Sharif’s advice on several issues.

However, the country Mr Sharif is returning to is, in many ways, quite different to the one he left in 2019. The economy is in a historic mess and businesses are rapidly losing confidence. Households cannot pay their electricity and food bills.

The government is not generating enough revenue to address any of these serious challenges, and there are no quick fixes to the country’s woes. Terrorism, too, is on the rise. The state of human rights in the country is dire. And political space is as narrow as ever.

In this grave situation, what message will Mr Sharif give to his supporters? How will he explain the last 16 months of the PML-N-led PDM government’s performance?

How does he plan to counter the enormous support base of the incarcerated Imran Khan, who remains popular despite being pushed out of politics? Importantly, how will Mr Sharif proceed legally against the court cases against him?

The return of the elder Sharif has often been linked to the timing of general elections in the country by members of his party. Now that he is returning, he must call for timely elections — and then face the decisions of a public that is angry and crushed by multiple economic burdens.

For many months after the PDM government came to power, it was speculated that the PML-N was afraid of elections because of how much political capital it had lost during Mr Sharif’s’ prolonged absence, and later because of the PDM’s inability to give relief to the public.

Though Mr Sharif’s key rival has been removed from the political battlefield for now, the matter of the PML-N’s bruised support remains. How he will galvanise his party, and persuade voters remains to be seen, but his party seems to think the ‘Nawaz Sharif effect’ itself will yield some positive results.

When he returns, Mr Sharif will not only have to explain why he left and stayed away from the country for four years, but also what his party plans to do to address the serious internal challenges the country is facing.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2023

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