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Pakistan's Ex-PM Sharif set for a comeback


Islamabad - Three-time Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif will return home on Saturday after four years of self-imposed exile, primed to make a political comeback ahead of elections.

The South Asian nation is facing overlapping security, economic, and political crises ahead of polls already pushed back to January 2024, with Sharif's primary opponent, the fiercely popular Imran Khan, languishing in jail.

"This is a time for hope and celebration. His return bodes well for Pakistan's economy and its people," said Khawaja Muhammad Asif, a senior leader of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. Sharif has spent the past several days in Dubai, and will fly from there to the capital Islamabad, then on to Lahore, where his supporters will gather for a welcome home rally, his party has said. His return has been touted for months by the PML-N, whose leaders hope Sharif's political clout and "man of the soil" swagger will revive its flagging popularity.

However, the former leader has a conviction for graft and an unfinished prison sentence hanging over him.

Earlier this week, the Islamabad High Court granted protective bail to Sharif until Tuesday, removing the threat of immediate arrest when he lands back in the country.

Sharif has been prime minister three times but was ousted in 2017 and given a lifetime disqualification from politics after being convicted of corruption.

He served less than a year of a seven-year sentence before getting permission to seek medical care in the United Kingdom, ignoring subsequent court orders to return during former prime minister Imran Khan's government.

His fortunes changed when his brother Shehbaz Sharif came to power last year and his government oversaw changes to the law, including limiting the disqualification of lawmakers from contesting elections to five years.

Sharif's return has likely been smoothed by a deal between the military establishment and his party to prevent significant legal hurdles, said analyst Zahid Hussain.

"There was some sort of arrangement with the military establishment; without that, he wouldn't have decided to come back," he told AFP.

Sharif has seen his political fortunes rise and fall on his relationship with Pakistan's powerful military establishment -- the country's true kingmakers.

Politicians in Pakistan are often tangled in legal proceedings that rights monitors say are orchestrated by the powerful military, which has ruled the country directly for more than half of its history and continues to enjoy immense power.

Fans call him "the Lion of Punjab", the eastern and most populous province where his support is strongest, and he is known to parade big cats at extravagant political events drumming up support.

But he faces the tough task of winning over an electorate weary of dynastic politics and a young population that has been captured by Khan's social-media-savvy party.

"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," said political analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.

The 73-year-old Sharif has said he was ousted at the behest of the country's powerful military after he fell out with its top generals, who play an outsized role in the politics of the nuclear-armed South Asian nation. He says the military then backed Khan to help him win the 2018 general election - which both Khan and the military deny.

However, the military and Khan fell out in 2022 and over the last few months, the country's top generals have been involved in a bruising showdown with Khan, which has afforded Sharif some political space.

The military denies that it interferes in politics. "For Sharif, after the immediate euphoria of his return wears off, he will face an uphill battle.

The honeymoon won't last long," said Kugelman. While in exile, Sharif is said to have played a major role in Khan's ouster and installation of a coalition government led by his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif. Khan led a relentless campaign against his removal, which helped him win huge public support, especially with the coalition government caught in a crippling economic crisis that has seen record-high inflation and massive currency depreciation.

Rising living costs have become unbearable for many Pakistanis after the coalition government had to agree to harsh fiscal adjustments to resume funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had suspended payments after Khan scuttled a deal in his last days in office. Khan's posture of defying the IMF's stringent reforms only helped his popularity shoot up. Sharif has had a track record of pursuing economic growth and public sector development policies.

When he was removed as premier in 2017, Pakistan's GDP growth rate was at 5.8% and inflation was hovering around just 4%. In September, inflation registered at over 31% year-on-year, and growth is projected to be less than 2% this financial year. Author and analyst Ayesha Siddiqa believes the economy is where Sharif will start his campaign. "He needs a far more robust team to run the economy," she said, but stressed: "His main task is to wipe out Imran Khan's memory from people's minds." Sharif's arrival has kick-started a campaign for general elections slated to be held in the last week of January. "Nawaz Sharif will revive the economy yet again," read a banner at a train bringing supporters to a rally which he will address in the eastern city of Lahore on Saturday.

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