Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is slated to return to Pakistan on Oct. 21 after a four-year self-imposed exile on medical grounds. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is gearing up for a “historic” welcome, with party leaders claiming a million supporters will gather at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore to attend a “homecoming” rally. To most impartial observers, this seems a tall ask, as the political landscape has shifted dramatically over the past four years, resulting in new political alliances and a changed public sentiment.
Nawaz has never been a great orator, and will struggle to adapt to the politics of “charisma” in vogue. The PMLN’s popularity has also declined due to the disastrous tenure of Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister and its rampant inflation, high taxes, and political instability. It doesn’t help matters that the circumstances of Nawaz’s return are unclear, triggering speculation over whether he retains his past popularity and is merely relying on the establishment to support him. He also remains controversial among a certain segment of the population for the Panama Papers scandal, with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf—bolstered no doubt by a pliant media from 2014-22—currently leading in most public opinion surveys.
But for those willing, or able, to look past the past 16 months, Nawaz has a track record that resonates with the general public. During his time as prime minister from 2013-17, inflation was in the single digits, electricity costs and taxes were within the reach of the underprivileged, and social welfare programs such as the free laptop scheme paid dividends. The PMLN has also, traditionally, focused on infrastructure development, an easier focus of public attention than invisible reforms that pay off in the long term.
For now, it is too early to say what, if any, impact Nawaz’s return will have on the political fortunes of the PMLN. However, if the party’s electoral campaign is able to address social grievances rather than solely relying on benefiting from a sidelined PTI, it is not too difficult to imagine another shift in the public sentiment that could see Nawaz return for a fourth time as prime minister.