ISLAMABAD: Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s political party is making preparations to welcome him on his return from London by organizing a mass gathering in the provincial capital of Punjab on October 21, as the election regulator announced its decision to hold national polls in the last week of January.
Sharif, a three-time prime minister, has been in London since November 2019 after securing medical bail following his conviction in two corruption references. The founding leader of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party remained in self-exile while the country was ruled by the rival political faction of ex-premier Imran Khan. However, his party leaders announced his return to the country last month, saying would be back on October 21 to spearhead the PML-N campaign ahead of the next general elections.
Sharif is planning his homecoming at a time when Pakistan is grappling with overlapping political, economic and security crises and he would have to deal with legal challenges of his own after being declared an absconder for violating his bail terms.
“We are organizing a massive public gathering at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore on October 21 to welcome Nawaz Sharif and make him inaugurate the party’s election campaign,” Talal Chaudhry, PML-N’s joint-secretary who is currently in London to attend party meetings, told Arab News over the phone, referring to a historic monument built at the place where Pakistan’s founding fathers demanded a sovereign Muslim state in March 1940.
Pakistan’s parliament was dissolved on August 9 to pave the way for the national elections within 90 days as per the constitution, though the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) said it required at least four months to complete the delimitation of hundreds of provincial and federal constituencies ahead of the polls.
After significant political uncertainty in the country, the election regulator announced earlier in the day to hold elections in the last week of January.
“The final list of constituencies will be published on November 30,” it said in a statement. “After that, the elections will be held in the last week of January 2024 after a 54-day election program.”
Sharif’s party has started preparing to mobilize the public to give a “historic welcome” to him on his arrival in Lahore ahead of the national elections.
“We are going to organize a political power show on October 21 in Lahore,” Chaudhry said. “The party ticket holders have been assigned to bring workers to fill the space around Minar-e-Pakistan.”
The PML-N joint-secretary said there was no hurdle that could prevent Sharif’s return since the party’s legal team was already hard at work to deal with any outstanding issues.
“Nawaz Sharif is ready to return on October 21, come what may,” he continued. “He is ready to face the courts and all fabricated cases against him. We are also anticipating a landslide victory in the national election under his leadership.”
Asked about Sharif’s return to Pakistan, ex-PM Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party said that “convicted criminals like Nawaz Sharif” were roaming around while their own party leader was languishing in prison on trumped up charges.
“We welcome Nawaz Sharif’s return, but will he be serving his remaining jail term or allowed to lead the election campaign,” Zulfi Bukhari, a PTI leader and Khan’s close aide, questioned. “There seem to be two laws in Pakistan. One for PTI and its allies and the another for Sharifs.”
Bukhari said his party would win the national elections “even if Imran Khan remains in jail and is not allowed to lead the party’s election campaign.”
“We have a complete strategy in place to contest the election and hope the authorities would allow us to run the campaign,” he continued, adding that any decision to let Sharif run the PML-N campaign would amount to “pre-poll rigging in Pakistan.”
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) also applauded Sharif’s decision to return, but pointed out he should submit to local courts on his return.
“We welcome Nawaz Sharif’s decision to return, but he should first surrender to courts as per the law of the land,” PPP information-secretary Faisal Karim Kundi told Arab News. “If the courts allow him to run the election campaign, then he will be a free man to do it.”
Asked about the ECP’s announcement to hold elections in Pakistan in the beginning of the next year, he said: “The ECP announcement for the election in last week of January is vague as election schedule has yet to be announced.”