Images of self-exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in London ahead of his planned return to Pakistan on Oct. 21 do not back up claims of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) vowing a “grand welcome” amid popular acclaim. The PMLN leader left Pakistan in 2019 on medical grounds while serving a 10-year sentence, with it appearing incomprehensible that he could return to politics. His reversal of fortune should be a time of joy and validation, but party leaders who have met him in recent weeks note he has no “rosy” picture of what awaits him. The former government led by his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, has left a public incensed over rampant inflation, massive devaluation, and a lack of stability, with the PMLN’s popularity the lowest in recent memory.
Another factor that is likely worrying Nawaz is the sustained popularity of PTI chief Imran Khan despite an ongoing incarceration, multiple pending trials, and disqualification from holding public office for the next five years. PMLN leaders acknowledge this, but maintain that Nawaz’s return can revitalize their supporters and pushback against Khan. In an interview with daily Dawn, PMLN leader Khawaja Asif said he believed in the “Nawaz Sharif effect” and the potential for his return to make a difference. “He will engage people, he will connect with them, and hopefully to some extent, eradicate the hatred that has been injected into our politics,” he added.
Rarely discussed, however, is how much Pakistan has changed in the four years Nawaz has been in self-exile. The country he returns to faces extreme political polarization, economic turmoil, and resurgent terrorism, not to mention the aftermath of Khan’s “cipher” controversy in the shape of “friendly nations” preferring to distance themselves. The country needs massive tax reforms and a reallocation of priorities aimed at expanding exports, remittances and the country’s lagging literacy rate. The economic situation also makes it all-but-impossible to provide any relief in the form of subsidies, foretelling tougher times ahead. Nawaz might finally be returning, but the PMLN’s claims of it leading to a revival of its popularity might not play out quite as it hopes.