In the spring of 2000, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif stood in a jail cell in Pakistan's notorious Attock Fort as members of the local and international press looked on. Imprisoned by the army chief he appointed, Sharif appeared utterly demoralized and even pitiful. It was a radical reversal of fortune for a man who just two years earlier had not only been prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan — but a democratically-elected leader with a commanding parliamentary majority who took on the military and conducted the country’s first open nuclear tests.
United States economic sanctions automatically triggered by the tests would spoil the party for Sharif. And relations with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whom Sharif appointed as army chief, would quickly deteriorate as the army waged what Sharif claims was a secret military operation in the Kargil area of Kashmir that would bring Pakistan and India close to a fourth war.
At the time of his overthrow by Musharraf in October 1999, Sharif was probably the most hated man in Pakistan. The country’s economy was in shambles. Sharif had butt heads with many, including the Supreme Court chief justice, often displaying an authoritarian streak. Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was in self-exile and her husband, Pakistan’s current president, Asif Ali Zardari, was in prison. Members of his party would bail on him and join Musharraf’s camp. By the end of 2000, Sharif was in exile in luxurious Saudi Arabia and his political fortunes had crumbled.
Today, Sharif’s stock is again on the rise. Having been back in Pakistan for five years, he is now the favorite to be Pakistan’s next prime minister. This is a testament not only to his political savvy and maturation, but also to public exasperation with the status quo. Many Pakistanis look to Sharif to solve their country’s economic woes and reverse failing governance. But his path to power is far from clear and his return to leadership would in no way guarantee that Pakistan will take a turn for the better.
To rise to power once again, Sharif’s political party, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), will have to contain the upstart Pakistan Tehreek-i Insaf (PTI) party led by former cricket star Imran Khan. PTI, after fifteen years of little political success, is now giving the PML-N a run for its money in its base, urban Punjab. Pakistani political analysts such as Sohail Warraich see the two parties as the main contenders in this area — the country’s most populous belt. So-called electables — candidates with the financial and social capital necessary to win in their respective districts — have been joining (and in some cases rejoining) the PML-N. Ahead of elections, there is a high rate of political defection, and viable candidates tend to side with the strong horse.
Most public opinion polls put the PML-N at the top nationally and rate Sharif’s personally popularity quite high. But few expect the PML-N, or for that matter any party, to win a majority of National Assembly seats and be able to form a government on their own. Pakistan, like India, is in an era of coalition governments. And so while Khan’s PTI is unlikely to surpass the PML-N in seats won, it could siphon off enough seats to deny the PML-N the ability to form a coalition, even if it attains a plurality. For all its flaws, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which leads the current governing coalition, has managed to stay in power despite a dismal performance record and erratic partnerships. At the moment, the PML-N’s potential coalition alliances appear limited to Islamist parties, such as the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), and might not be enough to put it above the fifty percent mark.