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Nawaz Sharif seeks another term as Pakistan’s prime minister :

PAKISTAN: With just days remaining before Pakistan heads to the polls, the usual fervor and noisy rallies that characterize the campaign season have been notably subdued.

“There is a prevailing sentiment among many that the outcome is already predetermined,” remarked Samina Yasmeen, a member of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

The individual widely expected to become the next prime minister following Thursday’s elections has been a familiar figure in Pakistani politics for nearly four decades. Nawaz Sharif, the three-time former prime minister, appears poised for a fourth term after being brought back from exile in the UK.

It was a reportedly behind-the-scenes deal with Pakistan’s influential military that facilitated Sharif’s return from exile, and he is widely regarded as their “chosen” candidate for prime minister, making him a clear frontrunner.

For those who view Sharif as one of the few experienced politicians capable of finally addressing Pakistan’s longstanding economic crisis, his impending return is met with relief. His focus on the campaign trail has been on revitalizing employment opportunities and reducing food prices.

“We need Nawaz Sharif because we are grappling with an economic crisis, and whenever the Sharifs have been in power, they have brought stability to Pakistan,” expressed Sana Saleem from Lahore. “The country is in a very dire state, and I believe it can only be managed by Sharif’s party. We have no other option.”

However, some express concern that Sharif’s return may do little to free the country from the grip of military influence or disrupt the dominance of the same few political dynasties that have governed Pakistan for nearly half a century.

The country’s most prominent political leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, is currently incarcerated and unable to contest in the election, leading to allegations of pre-poll rigging.

Sharif’s previous terms in office ended prematurely after his relationship with the military leadership soured. Nonetheless, his ascent to power has been closely intertwined with the military, who are seen as the shadowy power brokers of Pakistani politics.

“Like most Pakistani political leaders, Nawaz Sharif is not anti-military establishment; he is a beneficiary of military patronage,” remarked a close political associate. “He has never initiated a grassroots political movement against the military. He only speaks about civilian supremacy when he is ousted from power, until they offer him a deal to return.”

Sharif’s political journey began when he was plucked from relative obscurity by Gen Zia-ul-Haq, the military leader who ruled as president for a decade from 1978. Sharif was elected prime minister in 1990 and began building a reputation for economic prowess. However, after clashing with military leadership, he was compelled to resign, a pattern that repeated over the following three decades.

He was re-elected in 1997, seen as the military’s preferred candidate over the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was later assassinated in 2007. “There is a pattern of Nawaz Sharif repeatedly being reinstated by the military at intervals when they believed he was the candidate to get what they wanted done,” noted Yasmeen.

In addition to conducting Pakistan’s first nuclear tests, Sharif forged significant ties with India during his second term in office, despite his previous inclinations to the contrary, recognizing the economic potential of building relations and opening up trade. He developed a unique rapport with his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the two nations signed the Lahore Declaration, pledging to avoid nuclear conflict.

However, after the Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999, Sharif found himself at the center of a blame game, and his relationship with the military deteriorated once again. He was ousted in a coup by Gen Pervez Musharraf and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was allowed to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia, where he lived for nearly a decade.

Democratic processes were largely suspended in Pakistan under Musharraf, who imposed two states of emergency during his rule. However, after Sharif was permitted to return from exile in 2008, he once again found favor with the military and won the 2013 election. Eventually, a familiar friction developed between him and the military leadership, and he began to voice his dissatisfaction with the officers. His ousting was orchestrated in 2017.

“Once the military decided he wasn’t performing according to their expectations, it was a slippery slope,” said Yasmeen. “First, he was disqualified, then barred from politics, then arrested and jailed for corruption. It was at that point the military decided they wanted to pursue a ‘third way,’ which meant backing Imran Khan.”

Sharif was convicted and sentenced to a decade in prison for corruption just before the 2018 election, which brought the former cricket star to power in an election widely seen as rigged. With Khan, the military’s favored candidate, as prime minister, Sharif fled into exile, his political rehabilitation seemingly beyond revival.

Few alliances in Pakistani politics have unraveled as dramatically as that between Khan and the military. He was ousted from power in April 2022 after attempting to assert himself over the army leadership. He launched an unprecedentedly public attack against the generals, accusing them of holding a personal grudge and plotting against him. He was eventually arrested in August and has since been given sentences of 10 and 14 years in two separate cases.

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