Election time and another homecoming for Nawaz Sharif

Election time and another homecoming for Nawaz Sharif

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In all likelihood, three-time former Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif will land in Pakistan on Saturday after four years to lead PML-N’s election campaign. He is making yet another, and probably the most uphill, bid to form a government in the upcoming election which is scheduled in about three months. 
Elections in Pakistan usually provide occasions for the tumultuous homecoming of political leaders who have spent years in forced or self-imposed exile in foreign countries. Their political parties try to stage a spectacular show on their return to kickstart the election campaign on a high note. Not all such efforts have proven to be successful in the past.
Benazir Bhutto was greeted by a mammoth and charged crowd when she had returned to Lahore in 1986 after a two-year self-imposed exile. The momentum generated by the historic reception ultimately led to Bhutto’s victory in the election of 1988.
She was not so lucky when she returned to Pakistan the second time in 2007. She was again welcomed by a large crowd at Karachi airport and while the procession led by Benazir moved on the main street, a powerful bomb attack killed nearly 190 persons. She escaped the assassination attempt but two months later, was assassinated in a second bomb attack after addressing an election rally.
Nawaz Sharif was exiled for ten years under a brokered agreement after his government was toppled in October 1999. He, however, made a botched attempt to return in 2007 but was not even allowed to come out of the airport and a hostile military government deported him again after four hours. He, however, successfully returned to Pakistan two months later to a huge welcome after reaching an understanding with the military government.   
Another disappointing homecoming of Nawaz Sharif was just before the 2018 election when he and his daughter Maryam Nawaz were arrested upon arrival and taken to prison. The video footage of Sharif and his daughter being hauled away by the security agencies not only demoralized PML-N supporters, it created an impression that the security establishment would not let his party come into power. It was not surprising that Sharif’s popularity graph significantly dipped after his arrest.

In stark contrast to the previous three occasions, the imminent return of Nawaz Sharif now is happening in a totally different environment.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

In stark contrast to the previous three occasions, the imminent homecoming of Nawaz Sharif now is happening in a totally different environment. In past homecomings, he faced hostile governments and the establishment when a large number of his party leaders and workers were arrested. Both the caretaker governments and the establishment don’t seem to have anything against his homecoming this time. 
Since the attacks on military installations by PTI supporters on May 9 seem to have created a deeply entrenched mutual dislike between PTI and the establishment, it is understandable if the establishment has a soft corner for Imran’s opponents. Nawaz Sharif, at the moment, seems to be the strongest opponent of Imran Khan and therefore a bet on him is understandable.
If all goes well and Nawaz Sharif is not arrested and lodged in prison upon arrival, his return will certainly boost the morale of PML-N workers and the party’s election campaign will start on a high note creating a much-needed momentum.
PML-N has, however, taken a huge risk by announcing a public meeting right after Nawaz Sharif’s arrival. Addressing a public rally and starting high-profile political activity before appearing in the court may not go down very well with the judges. In case Sharif’s legal team is unable to procure protective bail for him ahead of his arrival, his arrest may become a compulsion for the administration and it may jeopardize the planned mega event, further deepening despondency among party workers.
Putting up an impressive show at Minar-e-Pakistan ground will be another test for PML-N. For a Lahore-based party, it should not be difficult to mobilize a reasonably large crowd for the rally. Although the number of persons attending public rallies is hardly an indicator for the votes to be polled for the party in the coming election, the size of the crowd sends out a strong message far and wide which affects the campaign momentum. A party which is able to gather a huge and charged crowd is perceived to be the winning party.
Last, the effectiveness of Sharif’s narrative, and how it resonates with the masses will determine his success. The anti-establishment narrative which had boosted his popularity in the past is no longer a choice. If he can make people dream of a better economy and rapid development based on his (not the alliance party PDM’s) past performance and make them forget, even for a short while, the sufferings due to prevalent high inflation, he may be able to carry the day.

— The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat; Youtube: @abmpildat   

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