With days to go before Pakistan goes to the polls, the feverish buzz and boisterous rallies that usually mark the campaign season have been unusually muted.
“There is a sense among many people that the outcome is already predetermined,” said Samina Yasmeen, a fellow from the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
The man widely expected to become the next prime minister after Thursday’s elections has been a familiar face in Pakistani politics for almost four decades. Nawaz Sharif, the three-time former prime minister, is likely to be on the brink of a fourth term having been brought back from exile in the UK.
It was an alleged backroom deal made with Pakistan’s powerful military that enabled Sharif’s return from exile and he is widely regarded as its “selected” candidate for prime minister, making him a clear frontrunner.
For those who view Sharif as one of the few experienced politicians able to finally bring Pakistan out of its long-running economic crisis, his imminent return is being met with relief. His focus on the campaign trail has been on bringing jobs back and food prices down.
“We want Nawaz Sharif because we are faced with an economic crisis and whenever the Sharifs come into power, they have brought stability to Pakistan,” said Sana Saleem from Lahore. “The country is in a very bad shape and I believe it can only be managed by Sharif’s party. We don’t have any other option than him.”
Others have expressed concern that Sharif’s return would do little to release the country from the stranglehold of military influence or break the dominance of the same few political dynasties who have run Pakistan for almost half a century.
Sharif’s three previous terms in office ended prematurely after his relationship with the military leadership fell apart. Yet his rise to power has inseparably entwined with the military, who are seen as the shadowy kingmakers of Pakistani politics, and at times have ruled the country directly after taking over in coups.
“Like most Pakistani political leaders, Nawaz Sharif is not anti-military establishment, he is a product of military patronage,” a close political ally said. “He never started a grassroots political movement against the military. He only talks about civilian supremacy when he is thrown out of power, until they offer him a deal to come back.”
Sharif’s career began when he was plucked from relative obscurity by Gen Zia-ul-Haq, the military leader who ruled as president for a decade from 1978. Sharif was elected prime minister in 1990 and it was then that he began building a reputation for economic capability. After coming to blows with army leadership, however, he was forced to resign in what would become a recurring pattern over the next three decades.
He was re-elected in 1997, this time seen as the military’s preferred candidate over the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was later assassinated in 2007. “There is a history of Nawaz Sharif repeatedly being brought back by the military at intervals when they thought he was the candidate to get what they wanted done,” said Yasmeen.
As well as carrying out Pakistan’s first nuclear tests, Sharif built significant bridges with India during during his second term in office, despite his past inclinations to the contrary, realising the economic potential of building ties and opening up trade. He established an unprecedented rapport with his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the two countries signed the Lahore declaration, pledging to avoid nuclear conflict.
But after the Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999, Sharif found himself at the centre of a blame game and his relationship with the military disintegrated again. He was removed in a coup by Gen Pervez Musharraf and sentenced to 10 years in jail, but was allowed to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia where he lived for almost a decade.
Democratic processes were largely suspended in Pakistan under Musharraf, who imposed two states of emergency during his rule. But after Sharif was allowed to return from exile in 2008, he once again found favour with the military and won the 2013 election. Eventually a familiar discord emerged between him and the military leadership, however, and he began to vocalise his frustration at the generals. His downfall was orchestrated in 2017.
“Once the military decided he wasn’t performing according to their expectations, it was a slippery slope,” said Yasmeen. “First he was disqualified, then banned from politics, then arrested and jailed for corruption. It was at that time the military decided they wanted to go for a ‘third way’, which meant supporting Imran Khan.”
Sharif was sentenced to a decade in jail for corruption, just before the 2018 election that would bring the former cricket star to power for the first time in an election widely seen as rigged. With Khan, the so-called “blue-eyed boy” of the military, in place as prime minister, Sharif fled into exile in the UK, his political rehabilitation seemingly beyond revival.
Few alliances in Pakistani politics have fallen apart as dramatically as that between Khan and the military. He was toppled from power in April 2022 having tried to assert himself over the army leadership. He began an unprecedentedly public tirade against the generals, accusing them of bearing a personal grudge and trying to assassinate him. He was eventually arrested in August and has since been given a 10 and a 14-year jail sentence in two separate cases.
Pakistan’s economy meanwhile continued into freefall, causing widespread poverty, hunger and anger. Instability has been worsened by a surge in terrorist attacks by militant Islamist groups.
With few other options, Sharif was brought back from the cold. Since then, a series of favourable verdicts have overturned all past convictions against him, clearing his path back to power.
“The military establishment believes they need Nawaz Sharif to take the country out of this economic mess,” said Absar Alam, a political analyst. “Their project with Imran Khan failed badly, so now they’ve turned back to Sharif who at least has a better economic record. He’s known for investing in infrastructure and creating stability and could help rebuild essential relations with the US, China and India that were harmed badly under Khan.”
Sharif’s main pledges on the campaign trail have been focused on the economy and offering a “message of peace” to India, while insisting the election will be free and fair.
But out on the streets of Lahore, a former stronghold of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, or Nawaz party, the mood remained overwhelmingly in support of Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, despite the continuing crackdown against it.
“I will vote for Khan, or I won’t vote at all,” said Fawad Hassan, 38, a salesman from Lahore. “Even after everything that Khan has faced, he has stayed in Pakistan, but as soon as Nawaz gets into any trouble, he just flees. We know who the real leader of our country is.”