THE one thing demonstrated by Nawaz Sharif’s return from self-exile is that political leaders can never be written off in Pakistan’s roller-coaster politics. The country’s political history is punctuated by dramatic reversals in the political fortunes of leaders.
Like other politicians who made remarkable comebacks, Sharif has also been a political survivor. Over two decades ago, when he was exiled following a military coup, many believed this would mark the end of his political career. That didn’t happen. He returned to win the 2013 election and become prime minister for the third time.
After four years abroad, he is now back to participate in the election, expected in January 2024, and make a bid for prime ministership for the fourth time.
Sharif’s long career in politics has seen many highs and lows. He was never able to complete any of his terms as prime minister as he was ousted either by the military or the president (when that office had the constitutional power to do so).
The last time he was prime minister, he was forced to step down in 2017 after his disqualification on dubious grounds by the Supreme Court and his falling out with the military establishment. His party survived its leader’s many trials and troubles, but when challenged by Imran Khan’s PTI, Sharif’s absence from the country proved damaging for PML-N.
Even though the party led the PDM coalition that assumed power after Khan’s ouster, his brother Shehbaz Sharif neither had the popular appeal nor political skill to effectively lead and reinvigorate the party.
PML-N lost considerable ground in its stronghold of Punjab owing to its poor management of an economy mired in the worst crisis in the country’s history, although this was the cumulative result of years of dysfunctional policies and political instability. Incumbency nonetheless exacted a price.
Mounting inflation fuelled public discontent and eroded PML-N’s support, while the party itself became divided and factionalised. But the party has also seen longer-term decline in support. From a high of 59 per cent of the popular vote polled in Punjab in 1997 (in the National Assembly election), the party got 47pc in the 2013 election and 35pc in 2018. Although the last election was disputed, PML-N still managed to secure a large number of seats.
This presents Sharif with the challenge of reinventing the party and overhauling it — in terms of image, purpose and organisation. It needs a new narrative that can capture the public imagination and is predicated on the future, not the past. It is no longer enough to work networks of rural and urban notables or ‘electables’ who use their local power or biradari connections to rally support.
PML-N was always adept at this, but in Pakistan’s changed environment, it is insufficient to deal with new dynamics. PML-N needs to fashion a message to inspire voters that offers policy solutions to Pakistan’s problems. The party also needs to reconfigure its team and not just rely on faces from the 1990s.
The PML-N leader faces multiple challenges, including reinventing his party.
In his very first public address on his homecoming, Nawaz Sharif spent a good deal of time on the past — recalling the injustice meted out to him, the personal price he and his family paid and his contributions to the country’s infrastructure and economic development when in power.
He also made it clear that serving the people, not revenge, would be his mission, and pledged to rebuild Pakistan. He referred to the economic challenge but didn’t say how he planned to address this and other problems, leaving that for another day. This is what people expect to hear in the election campaign, which will be crucial for PML-N’s revival.
What Nawaz Sharif will realise in the coming days is that he has returned to a very different Pakistan — politically, socially and economically. The country is deeply polarised with a fragmented polity.
Khan’s populism, PTI’s continuing popularity and its anti-establishment politics have transformed the political landscape. So has its mobilisation of youth, who will be a key factor in elections, especially as young people now constitute 47pc of the electorate. An assertive urban middle class that wants a bigger voice in politics and governance has also created a new political dynamic. So has social media. PML-N will have to discard its traditional ways of doing politics if it is to be in sync with these changes.
Then there is the hybrid political system in place today in which the civil-military power balance has shifted decisively to the military. Adapting to this will be another challenge for Sharif, who in his Lahore speech adopted a conciliatory tone urging “harmony among institutions”.
Nawaz Sharif has also returned in a very fraught economic environment. The country narrowly averted debt default just months ago. The economy is still on life support. The need for continuing fiscal tightening seriously limits any government’s ability to ease people’s economic plight in the near term.
How the economy is managed is the single most important issue for people who expect him to propose solutions to fix the economy. That in turn would depend on whether Sharif is prepared to jettison the old guard and reach out to younger members for fresh ideas. The country desperately needs an economic vision and a home-grown plan of sweeping reforms to address the structural problems responsible for its perennial financial crises.
The PML-N leader also has to deal with legal problems, as he has convictions in two cases he describes as politically motivated. These convictions mean he cannot contest elections and is disqualified from holding public office. Appeals filed by his legal counsel in the Islamabad High Court to set aside these convictions are expected to be heard in coming weeks.
The disqualification issue may involve a somewhat longer legal process that ultimately involves the Supreme Court overruling its earlier decision that disqualified Sharif for life. If that happens, the law passed by parliament reducing the disqualification period to five years will kick in and Sharif will be eligible for public office.
While he enjoys the establishment’s support, Nawaz Sharif has a slew of imposing challenges to negotiate. This suggests his arduous journey back to power has only just begun.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2023