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Nawaz Sharif’s Return: Navigating Pakistan’s Complex Political Landscape

While the world’s agenda is focused on the Middle East, a significant event occurred in South Asia ten days ago. You can call this event a game of chess or a game of musical chairs. The game played bears a striking resemblance to similar incidents that have occurred multiple times in Pakistan’s history. The return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after four years of exile is also part of this game.

The only reality revealed by Nawaz Sharif’s return to his homeland after exile is that in Pakistan’s tumultuous politics, political leaders, even when sent into exile, can never be overlooked. The country’s political history has often ended with political leaders dramatically returning from exile.

Like other politicians, the 73-year-old Sharif is a name that has managed to survive in politics. When he was sent into exile over twenty years ago after a military coup, many believed it would be the end of his political career. But that didn’t happen. He returned and won the 2013 elections, becoming Prime Minister for the third time.

After spending four years abroad, a grand welcome ceremony was organized for his return to participate in the elections expected in January 2024 and announce his candidacy for the fourth time. While his brother Shahbaz Sharif served as the Prime Minister, his elder brother managed the country from exile in London. Shahbaz’s closest confidant and a family member returned as the country’s economic czar.

No prime minister in Pakistan’s political history has been able to complete their term. Sharif’s long political career has also been marked by ups and downs. Pakistan’s political leaders were either removed from office by the military or the president.

Sharif was last removed from office in 2017 when the Pakistan Supreme Court forced him to step down, and he had to resign due to strained relations with the military institutions. Faced with the challenge posed by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Movement (PTI), Sharif had to leave the country. Although Sharif’s party, PML-N, led the coalition government after Khan went to jail, his less charismatic brother Shahbaz Sharif’s political skills were not enough to steer the party effectively and bring prosperity to the country.

Nawaz Sharif has returned to a Pakistan that is very different politically, socially, and economically from the country he was exiled from. The country is deeply polarized with a fragmented government. Managing an economy stuck in the worst crisis in the country’s history falls on PML-N, which has also suffered significant losses in the key province of Punjab. There have been divisions within the party as well. Whether he can bring about a political solution to Pakistan’s problems and effect real change remains to be seen. However, the “Nawaz model” has not been a panacea for all ills so far.

In his first public address upon returning to the country, Nawaz Sharif frequently mentioned the injustices done to him, the personal sacrifices he and his family made, and the contributions he made to the country’s infrastructure and economic development during his time in power. He made it clear that his duty would be to serve the people, not seek revenge. He promised to rebuild the country. It is clear that Imran Khan’s planned incarceration behind bars was carried out with the approval of PML-N. Perhaps that’s why Nawaz Sharif did not mention democracy and civilian policies in his speech, which may not have been surprising.

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s popularity and his policies of anti-establishment have changed the political landscape. His ability to mobilize the youth has had a significant impact. To align with these changes, PML-N will need to set aside traditional political methods.

Furthermore, today’s political system in Pakistan firmly tilts in favor of the military in the civilian-military power balance. In his speech in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif, who adopted a conciliatory tone by calling for harmony among institutions, will also face the challenge of adapting to this reality. The PML-N leader is also grappling with legal issues. He has convictions in two political cases. These convictions mean that he cannot participate in elections and may be disqualified from public office.

Applications for the cancellation of these convictions will become clearer in the coming weeks. Nawaz Sharif, who has been removed from office twice by the military and the judiciary, sent into exile twice, and managed to return and become the top political figure in Pakistan’s politics, faces formidable challenges that he must overcome.

This shows that the journey of his return to power is just beginning. In a country where history repeats itself, Sharif, who was never allowed to complete his term in the past, hopefully learns from his own history and continues on his path.

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YÜKSEL DURGUT is a journalist with a primary focus on global politics and foreign affairs. He serves as the Foreign Relations Director of the International Journalists Association e.V. and holds the position of Editor-in-Chief at Journalist Post.

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