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LAHORE: Three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan on Saturday after four years of self-imposed exile, primed to make a political comeback ahead of elections. Thousands of supporters were waiting for him at a rally in his power base of Lahore where the streets have been shrouded in green and yellow party banners. Pakistan is facing overlapping security, economic and political crises ahead of polls already pushed back to January 2024, with Sharif’s primary opponent, the fiercely popular Imran Khan, languishing in jail.

“We are completely ready for elections,” he told reporters before his flight left Dubai for Islamabad.

“Our country which should have been at the heights of prosperity has really gone backwards,” he said. “How did we get here? Why did it come to this?” Sharif was serving a prison sentence for graft when he left the country in 2018 seeking medical care in Britain, ignoring multiple court orders to return.

Analysts say he has likely brokered a deal with the powerful military establishment and last week a court granted him protective bail, temporarily removing the threat of arrest. The “Lion of Punjab” touched down briefly in Islamabad where he signed court papers, before flying on to Lahore and taking a helicopter to the Greater Iqbal Park where he will address his supporters.

More than 7,000 police have been enlisted to control crowds, according to a senior officer on site.

“I’m here to welcome my leader. The inflation is very high and poor people are desperate,” said 18-year-old Razi Ullah. “God has given him a chance to come back and turn things around. He’s done it before.” Sharif’s return has been touted for months by his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, who hope his political clout and “man of the soil” swagger will revive its flagging popularity.

“I am a poor man, I expect only one thing from Nawaz Sharif: that he brings down inflation,” said 50-year-old Umar Sabir who travelled over 250 kilometers (155 miles) to attend the rally. Sharif has been prime minister three times but never completed a full term. Often draped in a red Gucci scarf, he has seen his political fortunes rise and fall on his relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment—the country’s true kingmakers who have ruled directly for more than half of its history and continue to enjoy immense power. His last term ended when he was ousted in 2017 and given a lifetime disqualification from politics after being convicted of corruption in a case he says was politically motivated. Khan then stormed to power backed by young voters and, analysts say, the military.

Months later, Sharif got permission to seek medical care in Britain. From a luxury London property he is widely believed to have continued pulling the strings of his party.

His fortunes changed when Khan had a spectacular falling out with the top brass, and the former cricketing superstar was later jailed over several cases he said are designed to keep him from contesting elections. Nawaz’s younger brother Shehbaz came to power in a coalition, and his government oversaw a change to the law limiting the disqualification of lawmakers from contesting elections to five years. Legal hurdles blocking Sharif from power are likely being removed as part of a backroom deal between his party and the army, said analyst Zahid Hussain. — AFP

“There was some sort of arrangement with the military establishment; without that he wouldn’t have decided to come back,” he told AFP. However, his brother’s short reign in power coincided with a stint of runaway inflation and a currency reserve crisis that brought the nation to the brink of default—denting the party’s credibility. “Sharif’s key challenge is first to establish himself and his party as viable options to replace Imran Khan, who is already popular, and secondly to turn around the economy,” said political analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. – AFP

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