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In Pakistan’s election, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif may get another shot

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MURREE, Pakistan — When Pakistanis head to the polls Thursday, it would be a surprise if former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who recently returned from exile, did not emerge victorious.

Sharif’s rival, former premier Imran Khan, has been buried under an avalanche of court cases and remains in prison after running afoul of Pakistan’s powerful military. Meanwhile, Sharif — who has had his own run-ins with the army over the decades — was recently cleared to run after a court overturned graft charges he faced and he appears to have, for now, reconciled with the establishment.

For Sharif, 74, a fourth term in office would be an opportunity to clear his name after his last premiership was cut short in 2017 over corruption allegations. It could also represent a chance for him to solidify his family’s sway over Pakistani politics, allowing his daughter Maryam Nawaz to step out of the limelight and to perhaps succeed him one day.

Sharif is no stranger to military pressure and legal cases, which prematurely ended all three of his terms as prime minister. Or general upheaval. “He has the doggedness of a tenacious survivor,” said Sen. Mushahid Hussain Sayed, long one of his closest allies.

But the last two years have been politically tumultuous in a way that’s remarkable even by Pakistani standards. Economic growth hovers around historic lows, Khan is trying to campaign from prison, and a rise in militant attacks has led to political instability.

As prime minister, Sharif would have to contend with a military that only seems to be growing in influence and with the enraged supporters of Khan, who say their party has been unfairly sidelined. Khan was sentenced to prison in three separate cases over the past week alone, on charges that range from corruption to revealing official secrets to having married his wife unlawfully.

Sharif has given little indication that he’d seek reconciliation with Khan, whom he blames for his ouster six years ago. “What you sow, you shall reap,” Sharif told a crowd of supporters Monday.

As Khan was poised to become prime minister in 2018, Sharif was convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison, though authorities allowed him to leave for London in 2019 to seek medical treatment. He was later declared a fugitive, but last year — amid signs of a rapprochement between Sharif and the Pakistani establishment — a court granted him temporary protection from arrest.

It paved the way for a choreographed return last October to Lahore, his hometown, where Sharif was welcomed by thousands of supporters, even though his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), has in recent years lost ground there to Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

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Sharif does not have Khan’s rhetorical skill. But Sharif has made up for it by campaigning on his credentials as a businessman and leader who helped to turn around the economy in the past, his supporters say.

As Pakistan faces one of its worst economic downturns in decades, “we will need help from friendly countries to overcome our serious economic problems,” said Ahsan Iqbal Chaudhary, one of Sharif’s closest political allies. Sharif’s stature as one of the longest-serving statesmen in the region will earn him the respect of the United States, China and other countries, his supporters hope.

At a Sharif rally on Monday, held in the snowy vacation town of Murree, his supporters credited the former prime minister with having changed the area’s economic fortunes when, in the 1990s, he launched the construction of a motorway that drew more tourists.

But in the empty restaurants and shops around Murree, reviews were less positive. After Khan was removed as prime minister in April 2022, Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, took over, seeking frequent guidance from Nawaz. Pakistan’s economy, however, only sank further.

“Our last hope is Imran Khan,” insisted Eshan Ullah, 24, a doughnut vendor.

Khan’s continued popularity half a year after he was jailed suggests that Thursday’s vote is unlikely to provide the political and economic stability that many in Pakistan are hoping for.

Pakistani political analyst Suhail Warraich cautioned that Khan continues to have strong bases of support among urban middle-class voters. “Suppressing them for too long,” he said, could become “very dangerous for the country.” Frustration was already apparent when Khan was first arrested last May, prompting violent unrest across the country.

Some Pakistanis also worry that lingering questions in the Pakistani establishment about Sharif could contribute to the political instability. “I don’t think that he is someone who would be a more mellow, deferential, pliable prime minister this time around,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center. “That wouldn’t reflect his nature.”

While Sharif has advocated for closer ties to Pakistan’s archrival India, for example, the Pakistani military has traditionally taken a tougher stance.

Marriyum Aurangzeb, a spokeswoman for Sharif’s party, dismissed the possibility of a rift between the military and Sharif after the election. “Yes, there have been individuals within the institutions that were going against the will of the constitution,” she said in an interview, referring to Sharif’s forced departure from office in 2017. But “Mr. Sharif has always had a very balanced relationship with the institutions” themselves, she said.

As Sharif made one of his last pitches to voters in Murree on Monday, few of his supporters felt as confident.

Even if Sharif gets a fourth term, he will probably be ousted before he can complete it, said 29-year-old Sikander Nawaz.

Hussain reported from Islamabad. Haq Nawaz Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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