Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s thrice-elected former prime minister, has returned home after four years of self-exile in the United Kingdom to stand in next year’s elections against his biggest rival, former premier Imran Khan.
The 73-year-old veteran politician arrived by chartered flight to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad on Saturday, after which he is expected to lead a rally in his hometown, Lahore, where supporters decorated the city with green and yellow party banners, posters and flags.
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“We are completely ready for elections,” Sharif told reporters before his flight took off from Dubai.
“Our country which should have been at the heights of prosperity has really gone backwards,” he said. “How did we get here? Why did it come to this?”
The South Asian nation is facing overlapping security, economic and political crises ahead of polls already pushed back to January 2024, with Khan languishing in jail on corruption charges which he denies, after he was removed in a no-confidence vote in April 2022.
Sharif had not set foot in Pakistan since leaving for London in 2019 to receive medical treatment while serving a 14-year prison sentence for corruption. His convictions remain in force, but a court on Thursday barred authorities from arresting him until Tuesday when he is to appear in court.
While he cannot run for or hold public office because of his convictions, his legal team says he plans to appeal and his party says he aims to become prime minister for a fourth time.
Sharif’s biggest challenge will be to wrestle back his support base from Khan, who despite being in jail, remains popular following his removal. Khan, too, is disqualified from the election because of his August corruption conviction, which he has appealed.
“Sharif’s key challenge is first to establish himself and his party as viable options to replace Imran Khan, who is already popular, and secondly to turn around the economy,” political analyst Ayesha Siddiqa told AFP.
Sharif has said he was removed from government at the behest of the powerful military after he fell out with top generals, who play an outsized role in Pakistani politics. He says the military then backed Khan in the 2018 general election. Khan and the military deny this.
The military and Khan fell out in 2022, and over the last few months, they have been involved in a bruising showdown, which has afforded Sharif some political space. The military denies that it interferes in politics.
“An evergreen rule about Pakistani politics is that your chances of taking power are always greater when you’re in the good books of the army,” Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, told Reuters news agency.
“Over his long political career, Sharif’s relationship with the military brass has blown hot and cold. It’s now in a relatively cordial phase, and he stands to benefit politically.”
Pakistan is currently being led by a caretaker government in the run-up to January’s election.