Nawaz Sharif’s return

On October 21, 2023, the day he returned home after exile, a pigeon interrupted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's address at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore.  -X/@pmlndigitalpk
On October 21, 2023, the day he returned home after exile, a pigeon interrupted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s address at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore. -X/@pmlndigitalpk

The triumphant return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Pakistan, without much resistance from the judiciary and administration, amounts to an admission that the establishment had made a mistake by removing him from office by judicial order in 2017. His return from exile is further evidence of the futility of political engineering as a means of solving Pakistan’s complex problems.

Denied access to Pakistani media at the time, I predicted the three-time prime minister’s return to Pakistani politics in an article published in a foreign newspaper just before the July 2018 elections. At the time, the Supreme Court had disqualified Nawaz Sharif from running for office for life, which meant he had no legal avenues of appeal.

Neither his disqualification nor his conviction and imprisonment seemed credible to me. I was also able to predict the end of the one-page rule and the chaos that would follow.

“even though [establishment] succeeds in installing a selected Prime Minister into office after a vote is cast on 25 July [2018],” I wrote, “It will not succeed in its original purpose of creating a reliable, effective, civilian mask. Sharif’s political career won’t end long after his retirement from prison (or his daughter’s) [those] Who plotted his downfall.”

My conclusion was that “Politics is more difficult than locating and destroying enemies.” The latter was a reference to a quote by former Pakistan Army commander General Muhammad Musa Khan, who said that a soldier’s job is to locate and eliminate enemies. Training for that job, General Moses once said, offers poor preparation for the complex world of politics in which yesterday’s rivals may make common cause today and today’s allies may end up as rivals tomorrow.

During the last six years, Nawaz Sharif and his family have gone through a lot, as has the country. Now, Nawaz Sharif’s return to centre-stage is being hailed by those who had tried to build a new political order without him. Of course, the immediate reason for doing so is to sideline the other politician. But a broader lesson from the political turmoil of the last 35 years would be to understand that politicians with a popular base cannot be ignored.

Benazir Bhutto was removed from power in 1990 to bring Nawaz Sharif, but in 1993, Benazir Bhutto was removed from power and Benazir Bhutto was brought to power in her place. The 1996 ouster of Benazir Bhutto resulted in the return of Nawaz Sharif to office in 1997. The establishment followed the 1999 coup that ousted General Pervez Musharraf from power. A profound solution was to choose between two leaders, which he considered troublesome. But by 2007, Musharraf had to reconcile with Benazir Bhutto and eventually both he and Nawaz Sharif came back into the fray.

Benazir Bhutto’s concept of reconciliation was based on the Charter of Democracy that she signed with Nawaz Sharif, which laid down some ground rules for politics within the framework of parliamentary democracy. The radicals within the ruling establishment and the elite society of Pakistan did not like this rapprochement. With Asif Zardari coming to power after the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the lack of trust between him and Nawaz Sharif, the reconciliation process broke down for the benefit of the ruling establishment.

A third political force was created, which was expected to carry out the establishment’s agenda through populist politics. This time, again, any effort at national reconciliation will be thwarted by people who lack faith in the political process.

Sharif, Zardari and the establishment all need to be warned that the populist they have sidelined for now will not remain sidelined forever. Any real reconciliation must include those currently incarcerated, marginalized and awaiting trial.

Just as Benazir Bhutto’s reconciliation policy in 2007 was maligned by calling it a ‘deal’ behind the scenes, similarly Nawaz Sharif’s return will also be accused of making a deal. This may reduce his previous stance against interference of invisible forces in politics and voters not being given due respect. Nevertheless, the consensus within the ruling establishment and possibly even the political class, especially in Punjab, appears to be that Pakistan needs a safe hand after the chaos of the last few years. For better or worse, Nawaz Sharif is seen as a safe pair of hands.

His return and the enthusiasm it has generated among his supporters have raised hopes that the delayed elections will finally be held. But it is important for all parties to realize that elections are not just a symbolic exercise to install someone already elected as Prime Minister.

Like all Pakistani politicians with long careers, Nawaz Sharif’s political innings has included its ups and downs, compromises and struggles, and mistakes and achievements. But since he first became prime minister in 1990, he has had three consistent themes, even if these have not been fully pursued in policy or occasionally sacrificed to achieve temporary popularity.

First, he has always focused on the need for economic progress and the primacy of market economics. Second, he has stressed the need for peaceful relations with Pakistan’s neighbours, including India. Third, they have struggled with the establishment to gain the upper hand in policymaking for elected citizens. All of these are especially important to help Pakistan come out of the multi-crisis it is currently facing.

As important as changes in the policy arena are, it is equally important to bring down the political temperature and end political polarization. Nawaz Sharif’s cordial speech at Minar-e-Pakistan on 21 October was an important first step in that direction. But reconciliation requires a willingness on all sides to compromise. If one thinks that taking a tough stance and biding time is a better strategy, then we will only see a rerun of Pakistan’s recent history, albeit with some changes in the characters.

The author, former Pakistan Ambassador to the US, is Diplomat-in-Residence at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Geo.TV.

Originally published in news

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