Oct 21 (BBC) – Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is flying home this weekend from self-imposed exile ahead of general elections.
Few, if any, could have scripted the dramatic turnaround for someone who has been a thorn in the side of the powerful military for so much of his long career.
When he was last in Pakistan, Mr Sharif was serving time for corruption – but he was allowed to leave jail on health grounds in November 2019.
Now it appears the military is prepared to welcome back the man it toppled in a coup – and he could even end up being PM again.
That’s not all – in a striking reversal of roles, his rival Imran Khan, who replaced him as prime minister in 2018, is now himself in jail after falling out with the military.
Despite a sense of déjà vu, it’s far from certain exactly how things will play out.
What will happen when Sharif lands?
The three-time former PM has spent the past four years in London, after securing bail to leave jail in an air ambulance, ostensibly for medical treatment.
He’s been stepping up his political engagements since 2022, when Imran Khan was ousted in a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
Mr Sharif’s PML-N party took over governing Pakistan at that point, with younger brother Shahbaz in charge. Now big brother is coming home – he’s due to fly into Islamabad from Dubai on Saturday and then on to his home city Lahore for a public rally.
There are court cases still outstanding but he won’t fear being arrested as he has secured bail until a hearing next week.
It’s not the first time Mr Sharif has returned from exile.
In 2007, he and fellow opposition leader Benazir Bhutto struck a historic deal with the military to take part for the first time in elections since the 1999 coup that had unseated him.
All major opposition parties were on the same page then, unlike now – Ms Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) ended up sweeping to victory, weeks after she was assassinated at an election rally.
Will Sharif be PM again?
His party has made clear he will be their PM candidate in elections due this year, and now delayed to 2024.
But the 73-year-old has a number of issues to navigate – not least an economy in crisis, for which his party is largely blamed, and widespread feelings the vote will not be fair because his main opponent is locked up.
And then there’s the military, which has a big say in how Pakistan is run.
While abroad, the ex-PM has been very vocal on occasion against the armed forces. In particular he blamed an ex-head of the feared ISI intelligence agency and the former army chief of staff for political instability, charges they denied.
Mr Sharif said he’d been the victim of “bogus cases” and accused the country’s judges of collusion. This, he said, had resulted in a crippled democracy that hadn’t let any of Pakistan’s prime ministers complete their constitutional tenure in office.
His political opponents suspect a deal has been done with the military to allow him to return – but they say it’s still not certain Nawaz Sharif will win the elections.
Zulfi Bukhari, from Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party, told the BBC: “I don’t see him becoming PM again because there are cases against him and also, he is disqualified for life from politics according to court orders.”
But many observers think things will pan out differently, in Mr Sharif’s favour.
“The landscape and script of our politics haven’t changed. Only the political characters are changed,” political analyst Wajahat Masood told the BBC.
“In the 2018 elections Imran Khan was facilitated by the establishment during elections. This time the army is busy making elections for Nawaz Sharif.”
There’s no word from the military on whether it prefers Mr Sharif, and it and Imran Khan have always denied claims they ever colluded before falling out.
Will the elections be fair?
With Imran Khan in jail and his party weakened after a crackdown following violent protests over his arrest in May, many say the vote won’t be fair.
The PTI had been ahead in the polls before its leader’s arrest but Zulfi Bukhari says there is now no level playing field – most other parties agree.
“How can you put the most popular political leader of the country behind bars before elections?” Mr Bukhari asked. “If you hold free and fair elections, you will see how strong Imran Khan’s vote bank is.”
Nawaz Sharif’s party said similar things when he was jailed before the 2018 vote.
So political analysts see history repeating itself, with the PML-N rather than the PTI the beneficiary this time.
The main battleground is the economy – the two parties trade blame for the mess it’s in. Skyrocketing inflation and the cost of living will be uppermost in voters’ minds when they finally get a chance to cast their ballots.
Despite PML-N claims that Nawaz Sharif has been in power before and knows how to “fix everything again”, it’s far from clear how he would do this.
And most Pakistanis are deeply frustrated by what they see as their country’s rotten system of democracy. Young people especially now talk openly against politicians and the involvement of the military in politics.
Can the army rely on Nawaz Sharif?
The military, which plays a prominent role in Pakistan’s politics and has seized power in a number of coups, has a long, chequered history with Nawaz Sharif.
But despite this, and the lack of other obvious options, the military seems willing to give him another try, observers like Wajahat Masood believe.
“First the military launched Imran Khan thinking that was a better choice and he was a safe bet, but after they felt their authority was being challenged, they decided to take him down,” says Mr Masood.
“Now it looks like it’s Nawaz Sharif’s turn.”
He and other analysts also detect signs of a deal between Mr Sharif and the establishment, despite the former PM’s criticisms of the military from London.
They recall that early in his career Mr Sharif was himself seen as a product of the military and defended himself from the same criticisms as Imran Khan.
Given that Mr Sharif has been at odds with the military for most of his career, how might he play his cards now?
“He won’t be a ‘Yes Sir’ man,” says former MP Nadeem Afzal Chan.
He acknowledges Mr Sharif’s history of confrontation with the establishment.
“But he knows the boundaries and he knows when to cross those boundaries and when to let go,” says Mr Chan, who also served as spokesman for Imran Khan when he was prime minister.
However Mr Chan and other experts do expect confrontation at some point – it’s just a matter of time.
First, though, a date must be set for elections – and saving the economy from collapse will be the main focus of the campaign.