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Pakistan: An Old Man in a Hurry with a Score to Settle

The return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from exile to contest Pakistan’s elections will inevitably put him on a collision course with the army, in spite of its support for his candidacy.

Back again: Nawaz Sharif (centre) has been prime minister three times and is experienced and adept at balancing foreign policy interests between China and the US. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

2024 is a year of some 64 elections around the world, and one of the first, on 8 February in Pakistan, will be worth watching closely. In November’s US election, the strong probability is that the populist former President Donald Trump will be allowed to stand as the Republican candidate in spite of the 91 criminal charges against him. However, in Pakistan, the populist former Prime Minister Imran Khan will be in prison on polling day. He has faced 180 charges including for corruption and terrorism.

Everything has been done to extinguish votes for Imran Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Even the cricket bat symbol of the party has been omitted from the ballot sheet to make it hard for illiterate voters (about 40% of the population) to identify any pro-Imran candidates standing as independents.

Some may not be too sorry because Imran’s populist pro-Islamist rhetoric was as tiresome as it was absurd from a man of his background. However, his exclusion sends a lamentable message about democracy, as it is the army which has set its teeth against Imran. The army objected to his interference in military appointments, and there was bad blood between Imran and the relatively new Chief of Army Staff. In truth, however, the disagreements did not merit this level of ostracism.

There are real dangers in excluding the most popular politician in the country. A 2023 poll gave him a 61% popularity rating. With inflation at nearly 30% and a marked increase in terrorist incidents, there is a danger of people taking to the streets in support of their idol. Any rioting would have to be treated with care by security forces which are unused to dealing with mass urban unrest. Large numbers of civilian casualties would further stoke unrest.

Nawaz is no saint, but neither is he a stranger to the way the army exercises power –sometimes directly, but often through compliant judge

The army pondered long and hard over an alternative to Imran. There had been talk of repeating the previous coalition government of Shehbaz Sharif (former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s brother), but its popularity had suffered too much from food price inflation. There was briefly the idea of moving to the next generation of the country’s two political dynasties – Maryam Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto – but it was judged that both lacked the experience to cope with the chaotic and perilous world of 2024.

So, the decision was taken to bring back the veteran Nawaz Sharif from his exile in London and for all the charges against him in the courts to disappear as if by magic just in time for the election. In terms of realpolitik, this was not a bad decision. Nawaz has already been prime minister three times. He is experienced and is adept at balancing foreign policy interests between China and the US. He is a businessman who understands the markets and the need to keep Pakistan’s creditors (the IMF, China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) onside. He has always wanted to come to an agreement with India which would allow trade to flow between the two countries. He even attended the inauguration of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in defiance of advice from the army.

The expectation is that, after the victory in Punjab of his Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz will offer Bilawal Bhutto a place in a coalition possibly Foreign Minister as he was under Shehbaz. Bilawal’s Pakistan People’s Party is likely to win in Sindh, leaving coalition deals to be negotiated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

So far, so convenient; but there is a big problem. Nawaz Sharif has a major score to settle with the army. In his first term in 1990 he was the army’s choice, but was ousted after three years. In his second spell in 1997, he was removed after two years by General Pervez Musharraf’s military coup. In his third in 2013, he was forced out of office after the Panama Papers scandal. Nawaz is no saint, but neither is he a stranger to the way the army exercises power –sometimes directly, but often through compliant judges.

[The army] must learn to step back from national politics and devote its focus to the numerous national security threats

Nawaz’s bitterness is already shining through his campaigning. The Dawn newspaper has reported him in recent days as saying:

“Will you tell what enmity you had with me that you ousted me despite the fact that our government overcame loadshedding, controlled inflation and laid a network of motorways in the country? … Why was I handcuffed, sent to jail and exiled? I want an answer … [and] … We will change this whole system and for this I need your support. We will do such works that will be remembered in history.”

Bilawal Bhutto may not have quite so much scar tissue, but he will know that the army patronised his mother during her first term, allegedly even refusing to discuss Pakistan’s nuclear programme with her. Furthermore, General Musharraf could and should have done more to protect her after her own return from London in 2007 when she was assassinated.

Nawaz Sharif’s courage in making such bold statements comes from a realisation that the army has no alternative left. This is an advantage that he will use to try to reform the political system. Eventually, his intentions will collide with the army’s view of its role as the ultimate guardian of Pakistan’s national survival.

The army is indeed a vital element of Pakistan’s national unity being the one institution which counters the country’s centrifugal tendencies. Its current unpopularity is unprecedented and constitutes a real cause for concern. It must learn to step back from national politics and devote its focus to the numerous national security threats such as the terrorism emanating from Afghanistan.

Nawaz Sharif will be a far better prime minister than Imran Khan, and Pakistan desperately needs a full five-year term from him to stabilise the economy, improve security and open better relations with Afghanistan and India. However, this election is already hopelessly compromised, and soon there will be a new Chief Justice with a more independent approach. At some stage, Imran Khan may return just as Nawaz Sharif has done, with a clean charge sheet.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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