This time, it will be Nawaz Sharif versus PML-N
How Sharif addresses contradiction between what he wants and what his party does will decide the fate of their politics for years to come
Updated Wednesday Oct 18 2023
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is returning to Pakistan in less than a week after nearly four years in exile to rejuvenate his support base and bolster his party’s popularity ahead of the upcoming general elections. But Nawaz Sharif today is not the same man he was when he left at the peak of the hybrid regime led by Imran Khan — neither is his party — Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz — that he left behind.
Sharif’s homecoming might be an emotional moment for his diehard supporters, but elections are not won simply by an appeal to passion. Sharif knows this and he also knows he is returning without a clear and meaningful narrative. He will certainly invoke the prosperity Pakistan enjoyed under his previous government — when the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was unfolding quickly, the rupee was strengthening, businesses were flourishing, and the infrastructure was rapidly developing.
But the promise of economic performance — nostalgia for his 2013-2018 tenure — is no longer as potent after the dismal performance of his party and its alliance in government after Imran Khan’s ouster through the vote of no confidence. The economic crisis persists and the role of PML-N in perpetuating this crisis is still fresh in the public memory.
Sharif has his own ideas for a narrative that builds on the popular “vote ko izzat do” mission. The PML-N supremo, on the face of it, wants to remind the public that certain elements of the establishment wronged him and his party and that his grand mandate was stolen through a well-planned conspiracy. He wants to tell the full story.
Sharif believes that telling the public the truth is a winning narrative, that Imran Khan left a vacuum, and that he is well-positioned to fill it. He knows that the public will be with him once the truth is revealed. This truth involves not just the saga of how Sharif was ousted from power via the Supreme Court in 2017, but also an explanation of the poor performance of his party under his brother Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister.
Sharif wants to talk about the continued support for Imran Khan by then military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the judiciary after Khan was removed from office through a constitutional process. He wants to share with the public how General Bajwa played a double game with both Khan and the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), and how he played one against the other to further his ambition of getting another extension as army chief.
He wants to tell the full story of the events that played out in the Punjab, before Bajwa’s tenure ended, which further weakened an already compromised PDM government. Sharif believes that Parvez Elahi being told to stay with Imran Khan at the most critical juncture is the most glaring evidence of the establishment working to destabilise the political environment.
Sharif believes this unstable environment fed the economic meltdown, much of which was created by Khan’s incompetent government. Miftah Ismail and Ishaq Dar made it even worse. This is Nawaz Sharif’s truth, and he wants to tell it.
Nawaz Sharif has much to think about as he prepares for his return to his homeland.
However, he is the only one in his party who wants to do this. Everyone — the entire top leadership of the PML-N — stands in opposition to this idea. The PML-N leaders believe that this move will cause more harm than good — the chief among them being his brother, who continues to advocate for a more tempered approach, even though he was equally frustrated with the obstacles that were created by the establishment in the way of his government.
The PML-N leaders believe that Imran Khan irretrievably spoiled his relations with the powers that be, and this created an opening for Sharif to make his return. If Sharif assumes a hostile stance towards the establishment at this point, PML-N leaders believe the road to the Parliament may very well become impassable. It is a bizarre contradiction for Sharif; a narrative that will win him the support of the people but lose him the backing of his party.
Although he enjoys good relations with the new establishment, Sharif is quite wary about its intentions and plans. A top PML-N leader, after a meeting with Sharif, quoted him as saying, "Ask them, if they are going to give us the government, how much time do we have?" Once bitten, twice shy. Sharif has been bitten many times and this statement reflects the lessons he has learned.
Nawaz Sharif has much to think about as he prepares for his return to his homeland. This is a pivotal moment for him and his party. How Sharif addresses the contradiction between what he wants and what his party does will decide the fate of their politics for the years to come.
Rana Jawad is the Director of News at Geo News. He tweets @ranajawad