Will Nawaz Sharif succeed in his bid for Pakistan’s prime minister again?


Zahid Hussain

Many had written off Nawaz Sharif after he was unceremoniously removed from the office by the country’s highest court some five years ago. He was convicted on graft charges and sent to prison. He was allowed to leave the country by the high court for medical treatment under a pledge he would return to the country to serve his sentence. He appeared down and out, and stayed on in London to escape persecution.
But the disgraced former prime minister has bounced back proving pundits wrong. He virtually ran the government led by his brother Shahbaz Sharif that came to power in April 2022 after the ouster of the Imran Khan government. Now the three-time former prime minister plans to return home in mid-October to lead his party in the forthcoming elections and to bid for a fourth term in the top office.
Sharif’s return home would give an interesting twist to Pakistan’s chequered political history. He was removed each time halfway through his term. Some observers believe that it is not power but his wish to be vindicated which is the main reason for his endeavour. Apparently, the stage was set for his return home, following the passage of two laws by the parliament a few months ago.
While one of the new laws allows the PML-N supreme leader to file a review petition on his conviction by the Supreme Court, the second would reduce his lifetime disqualification to five years, which is about to be completed. The devastating Supreme Court (SC) ruling in 2017 had not only unceremoniously ousted Nawaz Sharif from power but had also disqualified him from holding public office for life.
But the 75-year-old politician has to cross many hurdles. There is still a long way to go before he can get the coveted post for the fourth term. Not only is his conviction still intact, he would be returning home in a politically unfavorable situation with his PML-N party struggling to maintain its electoral support base. Although the PML-N supremo has virtually been running the party affairs from London, his return will certainly help restore some confidence to the party leadership.
It is however, not clear whether he would be able to mobilize mass support in the changing political and social environment. Just two years ago, the party looked indomitable. That is no more the case. The party of the Sharifs, which dominated the country’s political scene for more than three decades, is now struggling to keep its foothold even in its bastion.
One of the reasons why the party is failing to win over the youth is the reluctance of the leadership to introduce changes. Instead, family control over the party has been further strengthened. The top party positions are dominated by Sharif family members or their henchmen. It’s all in the family, with Nawaz Sharif as the potentate and the younger brother as party president. Being elevated to the position of chief organizer and senior vice president, Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz has now formally been declared heir apparent. It defies even the pretense of democratic practice.
With the general elections just months away, the PML-N is facing its biggest electoral challenge. The prospect appears even bleaker with a lacklustre performance of the PML-N-led coalition government that stepped down last month and presided over virtual economic collapse. It would become much more difficult for the party going to the hustings without fresh ideas or a concrete program that could help it win back the support of its erstwhile political power base.
It has long lost its status of being a national party and now its provincial fortress is under siege by a rampaging populist force led by former prime minister Imran Khan. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the party, with its top leader living in self-exile in London for more than four years, has lost its bearings in a fast-changing political and social dynamics of the country. The PML-N is now struggling to build an effective narrative to counter the PTI onslaught that has eroded the party’s support base, particularly among the young generation and the urban middle classes looking for a change in the status quo.
Time is running out for the party, which still seems to be living in a time warp. The tightening of dynastic control has hampered the party’s outreach as well as the induction of new blood in the leadership. The return of Nawaz Sharif is not likely to change the party’s falling political fortune. Surely, Sharif, has experienced many trials and tribulations in his political career spanning some four decades. But the prospect of his dream to return to power for the fourth time seems grim.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain