Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is poised to launch his election campaign as the front-runner for the upcoming general elections in Pakistan scheduled for February 8. The Supreme Court recently cleared the path for Sharif to run for a fourth term, prompting his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), to kick off their mass campaign on January 15. This comes after a delay in the election schedule, originally set for November, which has injected renewed energy into a somewhat lacklustre political race.
The Supreme Court’s decision to lift a lifetime election ban for individuals with criminal convictions has opened the door for Sharif’s return to the political arena. Analysts speculate that the powerful military in Pakistan is throwing its support behind Sharif, who is considered a bitter rival of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Khan, a former cricket star and Sharif’s main competitor was jailed and disqualified from contesting, leading to a shift in military support.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Wilson Center in Washington, observes that Nawaz Sharif is considered a front-runner as he and his party have regained favour with the military. In Pakistan’s polarized political landscape, the military often plays a decisive role in determining the fate of governments.
Despite challenges, Sharif’s return to Pakistan in October marked a turning point for the PML-N. The delay in launching the campaign was primarily due to the lifetime ban, which has now been lifted. Sharif’s key focus in the campaign is set to be the rebuilding of Pakistan’s struggling $350-billion economy, plagued by high inflation, an unstable currency, and low foreign exchange reserves.
While other major players, such as the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), have already initiated campaigns, the two largest parties, PML-N and Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), are yet to fully engage in campaign activities. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the PPP’s candidate for prime minister, questions the delay in Sharif’s campaign, raising concerns about the credibility of the upcoming elections.
Imran Khan’s PTI, the winner of the 2018 elections, faces challenges with a military-backed crackdown and efforts to block candidates on legal and technical grounds. Khan, currently in jail, is dealing with a constrained campaign environment, further fueled by allegations of state interference favouring specific political entities.
As the political landscape heats up, Sharif aims to rally support around his economic policies, emphasizing ambitious infrastructure-led growth. Sharif, who served as prime minister in 1990, 1997, and 2013, attributes his 2017 ouster and subsequent corruption convictions to military interference, an accusation the military denies. The fallout is believed to stem from differences over handling relations with arch-rival India and his government’s treason trial of the late General Pervez Musharraf.
Amid political manoeuvring and power dynamics, Sharif emerges as a pivotal figure, seemingly the preferred option for the military in its pursuit of preserving and advancing its hegemonic interests in Pakistan. The upcoming weeks will undoubtedly witness heightened political activity as Sharif strives to secure a fourth term in office.