Could a returning Sharif be the savior Pakistan needs right now?
The Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) is busy giving the final touches to accord a historic welcome to its self-exiled leader when he lands in the eastern city of Lahore on Saturday after nearly four years. The organisers hope to convert his reception into an election rally and expect to galvanize support for the party as it goes into election gear.
But soon after landing, the former Prime Minister will have to face a court of appearances. He has been convicted in a case while many others are pending in the courts. And then he will be called upon to lead the party's campaign for the upcoming election scheduled for January next year.
Much has changed since he was ousted from power in 2017 by the Supreme Court on laughable charges. At the alleged behest of powerful actors, Nawaz Sharif was sacked by the court on a small technicality. It was a charge and a penalty that went reverberating around the world for its sheer hollowness and absurdity.
Since then, the economy has nosedived. There is a mountain of foreign debt. Unemployment has risen and millions are living below the poverty line. In a country of 240 million people, 28 million children are not going to school. Existential issues like depleting aquifers and water scarcity have not received any attention. Relations with neighbors have soured. Pakistan carries a begging bowl to its friends to avoid default, year after year.
The powerful military's ingress into issues of governance has increased. Huge chunks of state land are being acquired for 'cooperative farming.’ Its role in foreign investment is being institutionalized, The role of the foreign office in the formulation of policy has been drastically curtailed.
How far can Nawaz Sharif go to be able to make painful adjustments to these developments remains to be seen.
If Pakistan is to flourish as a multi-ethnic country, it must approach its own self with genuine pluralism and a democratic spirit.
Rustam Shah Mohmand
In his previous tenures as Prime Minister, Sharif's performance was indeed impressive. Despite formidable hurdles, economic and political, he managed to accomplish critical goals that no other head of government in Pakistan could have conceived, By carrying out nuclear tests he made the country invincible, He built a motorway that is the country’s mobility lifeline. He brought the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Pakistan and made Gwadar sea port functional. More importantly for the common man, he ended the agonizing spells of load shedding by inducting more electricity into the national grid. Though criticized for various reasons, one cannot deny that these are all achievements no other leader can match.
Sensing that the return of Sharif could open up a new phase of public service aimed at reducing poverty and creating an environment of hope and optimism for a disgruntled population, his political rivals, mainly the leaders of Pakistan People's Party (PPP) have started talking about the ‘deal’ with the military establishment that has paved the way for the return of Sharif. And the former Prime Minister has to live with such accusations in a polity that is far from being transparent.
The magnitude of problems overwhelming Pakistan is huge. What is lacking is the institutional strength that sustains a country. Institutions and systems are at breaking point. The restoration of institutions, rebuilding of systems, moving towards supremacy of the rule of law and supremacy of civilian rule, are crucial challenges if the country has to walk in a direction that is compatible with the requirements of modern times and reflects the aspirations of the people.
Sharif, if elected, will need to grapple with these huge challenges. He can undertake this enormous responsibility only if he creates a national consensus on 'reinventing' Pakistan. His failure or any compromise could seal the fate of Pakistan as a democratic entity. His success will create conditions for ending the 'guided’ system of hybrid democracy. If Pakistan is to flourish as a multi-ethnic country, it must approach its own self with genuine pluralism and a democratic spirit.
— Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.