Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister, returns to Pakistan

ISLAMABAD — Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan from self-imposed exile Saturday, arriving to cheering crowds in his hometown Lahore as rumors of a political comeback swirled.

The trip came as Pakistan gears up for a general election and Sharif’s main rival, ex-premier Imran Khan, remains in prison on charges he leaked state secrets. The country’s economy has “slowed sharply” over the past year, according to the World Bank, and a rise in militant attacks has helped foment political instability.

“I want to serve this nation,” Sharif, 73, said in an address to supporters, the Reuters news agency reported. “My only desire is to see this nation prosper.”

Sharif was convicted on corruption charges in 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison — but authorities allowed him to leave for London in 2019 to seek medical treatment. He was later declared a fugitive, but a court in Pakistan recently granted him temporary protection from arrest, paving the way for his return.

“The state awaits (Sharif) with open arms,” Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper wrote in an editorial Saturday.

But complicating a potential run is the fact that Sharif’s younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, just held the post of prime minister — his government was dissolved in August — and has been widely blamed for Pakistan’s economic crisis.

Still, Sharif’s supporters say they believe he won’t be barred from running in the elections, scheduled for early next year, despite his corruption conviction. Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, were both found guilty in the same case linking the family to the illicit financing of real estate properties overseas.

“Since he was wrongly convicted, we believe the conviction will be overturned,” Sharif’s lawyer, Azam Nazir Tarar, said in an interview.

Sharif’s choreographed return to Pakistan stood in stark contrast to Khan’s mounting legal and political woes and rattled the imprisoned politician’s supporters.

Khan was ousted as prime minister last year in a no-confidence vote in parliament and fell out with Pakistan’s powerful military generals, who hold sway over the country’s politics. Scores of Khan’s political aides and party members resigned earlier this year, citing pressure from the army.

Imran Khan increasingly isolated as Pakistan’s army pressures allies

Khan’s party — Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf — competes with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz for the same base of voters. The election could be decided in Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, where Lahore is located. It is a longtime stronghold of Sharif’s party – but one where Khan had made major inroads.

Sharif may now see an opening to win back voters there, although he has also clashed with the military over a political career spanning decades.

Analysts warned that Khan remains popular — and Pakistan’s economic troubles are greater than one politician.

“Sharif’s party celebrates the return of its leader as if he has returned with some magical formula to end all serious economic problems this country faces,” said Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political scientist. “It’s not the case, however.”

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