ISLAMABAD: Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose last three terms in office ended abruptly and whose previous reigns were marred by confrontations with the military and political rivals, on Saturday said at a homecoming rally after returning from self-exile that he had “no desire for revenge.”
The former premier arrived in Pakistan after four years of living in self-imposed exile in London. He touched down in Islamabad to clear immigration and then flew onward to Lahore, where crowds of supporters awaited him at the iconic Minar-e-Pakistan monument.
Sharif was ousted from power after the Supreme Court disqualified him from holding public office in a corruption case in 2017. The former premier says the charges against him were politically motivated.
Sharif’s homecoming comes at a time when the South Asian nation is mired in economic, political and security crises. His Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party has touted his arrival as a fresh start for the country ahead of national elections due in January next year.
“Who separates Nawaz Sharif from his loved one after every few years?” he asked, in his address to a charged crowd. “I have no desire for revenge in my heart. I have only one desire in my heart — to see my people prospering.”
Sharif’s last three terms as prime minister in 1990-93, 1997-99, and 2013-17 ended before he could complete his tenures, as he was removed by a military-backed president in 1993, ousted in a military coup in 1999, and disqualified by the Supreme Court in 2017. The 2018 election was won by the party of now-jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Ahead of his return on Saturday afternoon, Sharif was granted protective bail by the Islamabad High Court, an order under which authorities cannot arrest him until he himself appears before a court on Oct. 24.
He, however, questioned his ouster as a result of the Supreme Court ruling in 2017: “Why are our governments ousted and (court) rulings are issued against us?”
In 2018, Sharif was sentenced to 10 years in prison in a corruption case involving purchases of luxury apartments in London. The same year, he got seven years in jail in another case involving his failure to prove the source of funds used to set up a steel mill.
The former premier was released from jail on medical bail in March 2019 and in November of that year was allowed to go to London for treatment. He has since lived in the UK until his return to Pakistan today, Saturday.
“Today, trust me, I have forgotten all my pains after seeing your love. Everyone will have to work together if you want to get a status in the comity of nations. This is the only solution, I am telling you the crux of the last 40 years, this country will not move ahead without it,” he said.
“Everyone will have to get together for the implementation of the constitution. We will have to fix the chronic disease due to which the country gets derailed repeatedly. We will have to start a fresh journey.”
Speaking on foreign policy and relations with neighboring countries, he said Pakistan would have to formulate a “dignified” foreign policy and work on improving ties with its neighbors.
In his previous stints, Sharif has tried to improve relations with archrival India, calling for opening bilateral trade, and has been dubbed by his critics as “pro-India” for trying to normalize relations between the two nuclear-armed nations.
“We cannot progress by revoking relations with our neighbors,” Sharif said.
Relations between Pakistan and India remain suspended since August 2019 when the latter unilaterally revoked constitutional articles granting substantial autonomy to the part of Muslim-majority Kashmir under its control. Pakistan and India both claim the disputed Kashmir region in full and have fought three of their four wars over the region since 1947.
Sharif said Pakistan would have to decide how “we will have a dignified foreign policy and create good relations with the world.”
He added: “Even for the solution of Kashmir (dispute), we will have to work in an honorable way.”
It is widely believed that Sharif’s return has been made possible through a deal with Pakistan’s powerful military, which often pulls the shoestrings of politics in Pakistan and has ruled the country directly for almost half its history. Sharif’s party has repeatedly denied a deal with the army over his return while the military has not commented on the matter.
Sharif’s PML-N party became hugely unpopular after the removal of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan from the prime minister’s office in a no-trust vote in April 2022.
Sharif’s brother Shehbaz Sharif replaced Khan and though he failed to improve the economy, he saved Pakistan from default by securing a $3 billion International Monetary Fund deal. His tenure ended in August, and Pakistan is currently being ruled by a caretaker government that is constitutionally mandated to oversee elections.
Khan, arguably the most popular politician in the country, is in jail after being convicted in a case related to not declaring assets earned from the sale of state gifts during his term as PM from 2018-22. The conviction has effectively put Khan out of the race in the next election as convicted persons cannot run for public office as per Pakistani law.
There are dozens of other legal cases against Khan, and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf faces a widening crackdown that has seen hundreds of his supporters and members arrested over violent protests in May. Many of his oldest and closest aides have announced they were leaving Khan, quitting politics or joining other parties.
Khan says the cases against him are fabricated and politically motivated and his associates are being forced out of the PTI under duress by the military in a maneuver to dismantle his party before elections and pave the way for Sharif’s party to come to power. The army denies this.
Many independent analysts expect a fresh crisis in Pakistan if fair polls are not organized and question the legitimacy of an election without Khan or one that does not offer his PTI a fair chance or gives the PML-N undue advantage.
“We will see after the election regulator announces the election schedule,” political commentator Dr. Hassan Askari Rizvi said, “if a level playing field is available to all contesting candidates and parties.”