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The Fall and Rise of Nawaz Sharif: The Most Successful Pakistani Politician Ever?

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Hafeez Ahmed Khan

Nawaz Sharif, who was born on December 25, 1949 in Lahore, Pakistan, has played significant roles as both a businessman and a politician in his career. He has served as the Prime Minister of Pakistan in three non-consecutive terms: 1990–93, 1997–99, and 2013–17. However, he was disqualified from public office in 2017 due to allegations of corruption and was later convicted in absentia. These convictions were overturned in late 2023, leading to his return to the National Assembly in 2024.

Before entering politics, Sharif obtained an LL.B. from the University of the Punjab in Lahore and joined his family’s influential House of Ittefaq, an industrial conglomerate with interests in sugar, steel, and textiles. He later ventured into politics and held various positions, including serving as a member of a provincial council in Punjab and being appointed as the finance minister for the province in 1981. Subsequently, Sharif rose to become the chief minister after the elections in 1985. Leading the Pakistan Muslim League, he was first elected as the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1990 following the dismissal of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.

During his first term as Prime Minister, Sharif launched an ambitious economic reform program, which included the privatization of numerous state-owned businesses. His government also faced challenges related to the Kashmir conflict, maintaining a balance between the Islamic right wing and social democrats, and defying U.S. calls to suspend Pakistan’s nuclear program. Following his first term, Sharif was dismissed but returned to serve a second term as Prime Minister after the 1997 elections.

In his second term, Sharif aimed to reduce the powers of the president and the military and faced a constitutional crisis due to conflicts with the Supreme Court and the president. The economy continued to deteriorate, leading to sanctions imposed by the West and escalating tensions with India. This period culminated in a confrontation with the military, and Sharif was overthrown in a military coup d’état in late 1999. As a result, he was tried on charges of hijacking and terrorism, sentenced to life imprisonment, and later entered into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Following his return to Pakistan in 2007, Sharif faced various challenges, including arrest and deportation. Nonetheless, he remained an influential figure and participated in the political landscape, forming alliances, contesting elections, and advocating for the reinstatement of Supreme Court judges. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), also engaged in coalitions and power struggles within the government.

Throughout his career, Sharif has been a vocal critic of his political opponents and has faced numerous legal challenges, including disqualification from holding public office and court rulings against him and his family members. However, his resilience and enduring presence in Pakistani politics despite these obstacles are a testament to his determination and perseverance.

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In 2013, Nawaz Sharif made an impressive political comeback, securing a third term as Pakistan’s prime minister after the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won a significant victory in the May legislative elections. However, the election victory was marred by allegations of rigging by the rival Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, led by Imran Khan, which led to prolonged protests in Islamabad.

Upon assuming office, Sharif’s administration prioritized addressing the “three E’s” – economy, energy, and extremism. The government made strides in economic development, achieving higher growth rates, a stable currency, and lower inflation. However, challenges in the energy sector persisted, with continuous electricity shortages due to a demand-supply gap and the overall fragility of Pakistan’s power infrastructure. Additionally, the government secured significant Chinese investment through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) program, which aimed to boost infrastructure development but also resulted in a substantial debt burden to China. Despite these challenges, Sharif’s economic policies had a significant impact on Pakistan’s economy, fostering growth and stability.

On the foreign policy front, Sharif’s efforts to improve relations with India and seek a settlement with the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) created friction with the military establishment, which was at odds with these initiatives. This friction and the subsequent opposition protests provided the military with an opportunity to pressure Sharif on matters related to foreign policy and defense, highlighting the complexities and intricacies of civil-military relations in Pakistan.

The government’s response to extremist attacks, notably the devastating Peshawar school massacre, led to the implementation of a 20-point National Action Plan against extremism. The gravity of this event and the subsequent plan underscore the challenges in tackling extremism in the country, despite political and institutional rivalries that hindered its effective execution.

In 2017, Sharif’s third term as prime minister came to an end when he was compelled to resign due to a corruption probe stemming from the Panama Papers leak. The Supreme Court’s disqualification of Sharif from holding office led to his resignation, and he was subsequently convicted in absentia and sentenced to prison. His influential daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, also faced legal repercussions, deepening the political turmoil surrounding the Sharif family.

Following a series of legal challenges and their involvement in politics while in exile, both Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan to serve their prison sentences. Despite their convictions, they remained active in Pakistani politics, with Nawaz Sharif playing a prominent role in the formation of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which aimed to reduce military interference in civilian governance. This effort ultimately led to the ousting of Imran Khan through a vote of no confidence, signaling a substantial shift in the political landscape and raising questions about the stability of the government that replaced Khan’s.

In 2023, with the general elections looming, Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistani politics became increasingly likely, especially after the overturning of his earlier convictions. His return and subsequent election to the National Assembly marked a significant development in the country’s political dynamics. However, the surprising strength of the PTI in the elections posed challenges for the PML-N, including the need to adapt to a more competitive political environment. Despite this, the PML-N managed to form a government with the support of the PPP, further underscoring the evolving political landscape in Pakistan. Lastly, election observers believe that Nawaz Sharif lost his Lahore constituency to Yasmin Rashid of PTI in the general elections of February 2024. They also believe that the PMLN-led government led by Shehbaz Sharif is due to the maturing of Form 47.

Nawaz Sharif’s political career is a story of fall and rise. However, he has been the most successful politician in Pakistan’s history. His party earned five prime minister ships, followed by PPP, which secured three terms.

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