Michael Kugelman on Pakistani Politics After Nawaz Sharif’s Return

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Michael Kugelman on Pakistani Politics After Nawaz Sharif’s Return

“One can’t rule out anything in Pakistani politics, which are nothing if not unpredictable.”

Michael Kugelman on Pakistani Politics After Nawaz Sharif’s Return
Credit: Depositphotos

As Pakistan heads toward its next general elections, set for late January 2024, the political scene is heating up. One former prime minister – Imran Khan – is facing trial on charges of leaking state secrets this week, while another former PM – Nawaz Sharif – just stage a triumphant return home, having received at least a temporary reprieve from his own legal troubles. But the political machinations at the elite level are out of step with public sentiment, as Khan remains broadly popular and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is viewed as responsible for a devastating economic crisis gripping the country.

For an overview of the complicated dynamics underlying Pakistani politics, The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi interviewed Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. Kugelman outlines the contrasting developments for Sharif and Khan, and the military’s role behind the scenes. Even as the country gears up for an election, “there’s a lot of cynicism about Pakistani politics on the whole, across the entire voting base,” Kugelman said.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned to the country on October 21, following four years of self-exile in London. What do you think Sharif’s return signals for Pakistani politics, particularly the prospects of his party, the PML-N, in the upcoming elections?

The main takeaway here is that Sharif has reconciled, at least to a degree, with the military. One can’t imagine him returning to Pakistan in the absence of some understanding with the military to ensure he won’t be arrested and jailed now that he’s back. Sharif has no interest in coming back to Pakistan so that he can be detained, with his party reduced to playing the victimization narrative card for its political benefit. He has much loftier goals: He is returning to try to unite a fractured party and to energize its base, and to catapult the party back to power in the upcoming election.

Sharif and his party provide a vivid example of an evergreen theme of Pakistani politics: Political leaders tend to fall in and out of love with the military. Sharif began his political career as a protegee of a military dictator, Zia ul-Haq. Later, when prime minister, Sharif clashed with another military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, and was removed in a coup. But then he made his way back later on for two more terms as premier. During his third term, his relationship with the military went south again due to disagreements about relations with India and how to address terrorism. He was soon forced out of power and went into exile. But now, with the PML-N back in the military’s good graces, he is poised for a return.

Despite better relations with the military, the PML-N is not in a good place. In addition to some internal fissures among some of the party’s top leaders, the party has suffered hits to its popularity. It held the prime and finance ministerships in the previous ruling coalition, and that made the party the subject of public ire for the government’s poor handling of a terrible economic crisis. Also, Imran Khan’s party has made major inroads in the PML-N’s bastion of Punjab province, and that province – the most populous in Pakistan – has long been Pakistan’s biggest electoral prize.

This means that the PML-N will face an uphill electoral battle. But with the military behind it, there may be some engineering done within the electoral environment that works in its favor – much like what happened before the 2018 election that brought Khan to power. All this said, for now, because of the legal charges against Sharif, he’s not able to hold power himself. The party’s hope is that he, the top party leader and mobilizer, can energize the base, paving the way for another party leader – perhaps his brother Shehbaz, the previous premier – to hold the prime ministership.

Sharif’s rival, former Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing an avalanche of legal cases and is currently in jail. Still, he remains broadly popular among the Pakistani public. What are the prospects for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in the elections — assuming it’s allowed to compete at all?

Technically, Khan can’t return to power because the current charges against him mean he has been disqualified from politics for five years, until the next election. And with Khan in jail, he can’t do what he does best – mobilize and energize his massive support base. Even if he weren’t in jail – though he’s highly unlikely to be freed before the election – his concerns about his safety, following an assassination attempt last year, would probably mean he still wouldn’t be out hosting public rallies. This doesn’t bode well for the party, which has long revolved around him. But the challenges go deeper, given that many other PTI leaders are either in jail or have been forced by the military to switch parties or leave politics altogether.

But what does remain is Khan’s passionate supporters, who are unwilling to back any entity other than the PTI. Despite facing severe crackdowns, the PTI has continued to flash its electoral power, winning several key by-elections in recent months, and Khan still polls as the country’s most popular politician. There is also the factor that the PTI’s main rivals are struggling – the PML-N has lost popularity, and the Pakistan People’s Party (the other main established political party in Pakistan) no longer enjoys national clout. This suggests that, if the election is free and fair, the PTI would have a chance of doing quite well regardless of who is given party tickets. But that’s a big “if.” 

There is also an intriguing question looming over all this: Is there a remaining PTI political leader with the clout and capacity to reach out to the military to push for reconciliation and reach an understanding? The PTI clearly knows its chances of returning to power are better if it can somehow patch up ties with the Army. Khan’s beef is not with the military as an institution; it’s more of a vendetta against the current army chief and his predecessor. Khan enjoys some support within the lower and middle ranks of the military. So there may be maneuvering room for some type of negotiation. It’s certainly a long shot, but one can’t rule out anything in Pakistani politics, which are nothing if not unpredictable.

In every Pakistani election, the role of the military looms large. In 2018, for example, Sharif and his PML-N complained that their party was harassed while the PTI was “selected” for victory. What role has the military been playing in this election cycle? Are there any indications of who might be “selected” this time around?

The electoral preferences of the military, which has ramped up its role in many areas of policy in recent months, are no secret. Just look at the crackdown on not only PTI leaders but also supporters – hundreds of the latter have been arrested in recent months, and many PTI partisans are afraid to take to the streets, fearing arrest. The Pakistani media are not allowed to feature coverage of Khan, or even mention his name. This is reminiscent of what happened before the 2018 election, only then it was the PML-N and its leaders that were being targeted in this way.

Shehbaz Sharif, despite his widely criticized handling of the economy during his brief time in power in 2022 and 2023, is a logical favorite son of the military. Unlike his brother, his relationship with the military has long been relatively cordial, and he is likely to defer to it – as he did during the brief term of the previous government, when the military took up more and more policy space. 

Separately, there is some speculation that Bilawal Bhutto, the previous foreign minister, could occupy a prominent role in the next government; the military’s relationship with the PPP appears quite cordial at the moment. But his relative inexperience, as a fairly young political leader, may be a mitigating factor.

How does Pakistan’s public appraise the major political parties at this moment, and what bearing will that have on the election?

I’d argue there’s a lot of cynicism about Pakistani politics on the whole, across the entire voting base. This isn’t new (and certainly not something unique to Pakistan), but I sense a hardening of such sentiment over the last few years, triggered by an unrelenting economic crisis that no one has been able to fix; growing levels of polarization, vendettas, and political sparring; a growing threat of terrorism that has gone unaddressed; and the perceived failures of institutions – legal and political – to deliver outcomes that advance justice and development.

If there’s a winner from this, it’s the PTI, as it’s always sought to project itself as a third way, the better alternative to a status quo marked by corruption and a dynastic, ossified political elite. The crackdown on the PTI in recent months has only made the party appear more heroic and deserving of sympathy, in the eyes of its growing support base.

But there are other, newer efforts to create third ways as well. These include several new political parties and splinter factions of the PTI, but because they’re backed by the military, that will taint them in the eyes of many Pakistanis. It’s the more independent movements that are worth watching. These include a new campaign called Reimaging Pakistan, led by several former senior leaders of various parties. It’s not yet a political party, but it may take steps to become one in the coming weeks.

The Pakistani public is bearing the brunt of an economic crisis, with tax hikes and electricity costs increases necessitated by the previous IMF bailout sparking outpourings of discontent. Given the political instability, what options does the Pakistani government – current and future – have to address the country’s deep-rooted economic issues?

Pakistan’s current and future governments face a conundrum common over the course of Pakistan’s history: How to balance the need to provide immediate economic relief to the public – and get a useful political bounce – with the need to uphold austerity measures to ensure IMF support and, in due course, pass politically painful but economically necessary structural reforms.

While this conundrum is not new, it’s especially urgent and complicated now given that Pakistan is suffering through one of its worst economic crises in decades. There has been a tendency, in the past, for governments to push austerity as much as they can, but eventually give in and ease up on subsidies and increase spending, which brings political benefits but prolongs longer-term economic problems.

I suspect that pattern will play out now as well, though with Pakistan’s next government likely having to negotiate yet another IMF loan, there may be a longer period of austerity than usual – which could have implications for political and social stability, not to mention more immediate-term economic pain.

Ultimately Pakistan is where it is today because of the unwillingness of previous Pakistani governments – even at moments of relative economic stability – to take those politically painful but economically necessary steps: Widening the tax base, reducing regulation of the private sector, diversifying exports beyond the politically powerful textile industry, reducing expensive energy imports from key partners in the Middle East, bringing more discipline and efficiency to the agricultural sector, privatizing struggling state corporations, and so on. In recent weeks, there has been a bit of movement on a few of these reforms, especially the last one. But not much.

Pakistanis tend not to like when their country is compared to India. But one comparison is quite apt. In 1991, India, facing immense economic stress, passed a series of liberalization reforms. It marked the beginning of a dramatic economic turnaround that helped set India on a path that has brought it to where it is today – one of the world’s top and fastest-growing economies.