Nawaz Sharif returns to Pakistan: Ousted PM's confrontational attitude towards military could boost PML-N's chances

It’s a homecoming for former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif as he lands on Friday, only to be arrested by the anti-graft body at the airport. He, along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz, was found guilty in an anti-corruption case. Nawaz himself was sentenced to ten years in jail, while his daughter, who is said to be his heir-apparent, faces seven years.

Several rumours were associated with his return, including some stating that a deal was being struck between Nawaz and the powerful military establishment, which is being seen as a direct stakeholder in the current political crisis in Pakistan. The military establishment was reportedly looking for a deal with Nawaz in order to stop him from coming back.

Both the father and daughter, in their recent press conferences in London, repeatedly claimed they were asked not to come back. The message was ignored by them.

According to several PML-N insiders, the prevailing logic within the party was that Nawaz’s arrival was important for the survival of the party and could boost their chances of a clear-cut win — a belief shared by those within the establishment. Hence, offers for a deal.

The panic after he announced his return was visible even in Imran Khan’s PTI. On several occasions, he accused Nawaz of trying to become a political martyr and gain public sympathy.

File image of former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif. AP

File image of former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif. AP

Ahead of their arrival in Lahore, PML-N’s stronghold, the police has reportedly arrested more than 300 PML-N activists in a bid to discourage a hero’s welcome for them. Nawaz’s party has been attempting to organise a big show in Lahore for the last few days.

Police officials all over Punjab – Pakistan’s biggest province and Nawaz’s primary voter base – have been asked by the military and intelligence officials to arrest PML-N activists and disrupt their activities, a senior police official said on the condition of anonymity.

Nawaz has, over the last few days, amped up his attacks on the establishment, or khalai makhlooq (aliens), as he calls them. For the first time ever, he named a senior General from the intelligence department in his press conference in London, accusing him of coercing PML-N’s electoral candidates to either quit the race or change their affiliations.

In a subsequent event, speaking with the members of his party in London, he defiantly said, "Throw Nawaz Sharif in prison for life. Send him to the gallows. But answer these questions. The people of Pakistan will demand the answer to these questions now and will not rest until they are answered”.

Referring to Pakistan’s placement in the grey list of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) over terror financing, Nwaz asked the military without naming them: “Is this your success, that you brought Pakistan back into the grey list?"

He further said there was a 'state above a state' working in Pakistan, in an apparent reference to the military’s alleged meddling into civilian affairs.

Nawaz is not the only political leader who has accused the military intelligence agencies of influencing the upcoming general elections. Senior leaders of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) also held a conference two days ago, accusing several serving military officers of threatening their candidates.

The visuals of Nawaz and his daughter going to jail are said to have a lasting impact on the voters’ psyche.

The narrative around which Nawaz has built his campaign, 'vote ko izzat do', or respect the vote, directly confronts the military’s involvement in Pakistani politics.

The mainstreaming of that narrative in Punjab, which has historically been the key part of the military establishment’s playbook, in effect, poses a grave threat to their dominance in the country.

Gul Bukhari, a journalist and civil rights activist, believes that despite blatant attempts by the military to downsize the PML-N, its popularity remains intact.

The military-judiciary alliance is panicking now because neither Nawaz’s conviction nor the pressure tactics employed against the PML-N candidates have borne any fruit, she says.

“Every poll places Nawaz Sharif and his party ahead of the PTI,” she said, adding, “For the first time ever, Punjabis are showing resentment against the establishment, and Nawaz is leveraging that.”

However, Mubashir Zaidi, a well-known journalist and analyst, insists otherwise. “The party is under tremendous pressure from the military,” he says.

“They are leaving no stone unturned to ensure the PML-N doesn’t win more than 50 National Assembly seats, but I think they still can win at least 75-80,” he added.

The prospects of a hung parliament have increased drastically as Nawaz’s trial proceeded and his popularity decreased. However, it remains to be seen if the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) can win big enough to be able to form a coalition government.

Bukhari, however, sees a surge in Nawaz’s popularity after he took on the establishment, which she says is why the military wanted him to stay out of Pakistan.

Nevertheless, she believes, the number of National Assembly seat for the PML-N would be reduced.

“The endless corruption trials, the continuous hammering of Nawaz Sharif and his party in the media, now the pre-poll rigging attempts by the military are definitely going to have an impact on his party’s performance.”

Zaidi is not completely ruling out the PML-N either. “It was absolutely necessary for Nawaz and Maryam to come back in order to keep the party intact,” he told me.

While Nawaz may not be relevant to the system anymore, at least from the administrative perspective, his daughter will play a major role in Pakistani politics, he insists.

“Sharif’s decision to return also hinges upon his hopes that a higher court would give him reprieve in the coming days.”

Analysts also believe the PML-N and PPP are coming together on the issue of pre-poll rigging and there is a possibility of a coalition government between the two parties.

However, the prospects of a PML-N—PPP alliance remain bleak as several PPP leaders themselves, including Asif Ali Zardari himself, are facing corruption charges, which could be used as a deterrence against forming of such an alliance.

Also, what is interesting to note is the surreal number of military personnel being deployed across Pakistan on the polling day (around 370,000). The junior commissioned officers deployed at the polling stations have also been given broad powers of a magistrate, meaning they could try and charge anyone at the spot.

That, according to legal and political experts, could be used as a last-ditch effort to influence the PML-N votebank.

Whatever the case is, if the PML-N puts up a big show on Friday in Lahore, it could definitely boost their chances to do better than expected in the polls, scheduled for 25 July.

Follow live updates on Nawaz Sharif returning to Pakistan here.

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Updated Date: Jul 13, 2018 18:26:42 IST

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