Pakistan’s former PM set to launch re-election campaign

After the Supreme Court granted clearance for him to seek a fourth term, Nawaz Sharif is set to launch his campaign in the coming week.

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif gestures to supporters upon his arrival from a self-imposed exile in London, ahead of the 2024 Pakistani general election, in Lahore, Pakistan, October 21, 2023. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza/File Photo

Pakistan’s ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party is viewed as a leading contender in the upcoming general elections in February, is scheduled to launch his campaign next week, according to sources. This comes after the Supreme Court granted clearance for him to seek a fourth term. The election, initially delayed since November, is poised to inject energy into a subdued race amidst a politically uncertain environment, particularly with Sharif’s main rival, former premier Imran Khan, being jailed and disqualified from participating.

The campaign is expected to start on January 15, with the former premier addressing a rally two days later.

Analysts speculate that the influential military in the South Asian nation has thrown its support behind the 74-year-old Sharif after a standoff with the 71-year-old former cricket star Khan. This backing provides Sharif with an advantage in a country where military leaders often play a decisive role in shaping or dismantling governments. It seems the army turned against Khan and does not want him to return to power.

Despite Sharif’s return to Pakistan in October after four years of self-imposed exile, his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had yet to commence its campaign due to a lifetime ban on him contesting elections. However, on Monday, the Supreme Court overturned lifetime election bans for individuals with criminal convictions, paving the way for Sharif’s candidacy.

While major players like the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto have already initiated campaigns, they have been comparatively low-key compared to previous elections.

As the election approaches, the two major parties, PML-N and Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have yet to intensify their campaigns, raising concerns about the feasibility of holding the elections in four weeks. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the candidate for prime minister from Bhutto’s party, pointed to the delayed launch of Sharif’s campaign, questioning the certainty of the election taking place.

Khan’s PTI, victorious in the 2018 elections and known for lively gatherings, is facing challenges due to a military-backed crackdown. The party alleges state-supported efforts to hinder candidates on legal and technical grounds, especially with its leader currently in jail.

Sharif’s primary commitment is to revive the struggling $350-billion economy, grappling with issues like high inflation, an unstable currency, and low foreign exchange reserves, despite averting a debt default with an IMF bailout last summer.

Having served as prime minister in 1990, 1997, and 2013, Sharif attributes his 2017 ouster and subsequent corruption convictions to the military, with which he had a falling out. The military denies these allegations, and the discord is believed to have originated from differences in handling relations with arch-rival India and the government’s treason trial of the late General Pervez Musharraf, a former ruler and army chief.

Analysts suggest that despite past conflicts, Sharif remains the only viable option for the military, emphasizing the military’s focus on preserving and advancing its interests rather than maintaining permanent enmities or friendships.

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