Newsmaker: Nawaz Sharif

How the former prime minister of Pakistan became the "comeback kid".
Illustration by Kagan McLeod
Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Perhaps no other statesman in world politics today would be more worthy of the name "comeback kid" should the political frontrunner for the Pakistani premiership triumph in tomorrow's fiercely contested general election.

Nawaz Sharif, who is looking to become Pakistan's prime minister for a third time after two stints in the role during the 1990s, has had a decades-long career that has seen him in government, opposition and exile. Indeed, on the cusp of power once again, Sharif's road to election favourite has been fraught. Should he re-take the crown he lost in a bloodless coup to former army chief and president Pervez Musharraf in 1999, he will make history as the only figure in Pakistani politics to be a three-time premier, and all in an election that is notable for being the first ever in Pakistan to determine a transition between civilian governments.

A victory for Sharif, 63, and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party would surely be a sweet moment for this business magnate and religious conservative, who served as prime minister from November 1990 to July 1993 and from February 1997 until he was sensationally toppled from power some 14 years ago by Musharraf. (Musharraf is now under house arrest in what has proved a remarkable reversal in the fortunes of the two political foes.) It was a bruising experience for a man who, prior to his downfall, appeared to tower over Pakistan's topsy-turvy political scene with secure majorities in both houses of parliament.

But while retaining a tight grip over the country's power structures, it was his lack of control over the military - and subsequent confrontation with this most formidable of national institutions - that soon did the political veteran in. Along with dozens of family members, he was exiled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia until his brio-filled return to Pakistan in 2007.

The ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), led by the president, Asif Ali Zardari, has not had its troubles to seek over the past five years. While it has achieved a first in Pakistani politics as the only government in the country's history to fulfil a full term, the PPP has mainly delivered a track record that has, in essence, done little to earn the renewed trust of Pakistan's 86 million-plus registered voters. Accused of blatant corruption, gross government inefficiency, an inability to deliver real economic growth and sundry other misdemeanours, the PPP has provided fertile ground for Sharif's political campaign, which has been riding high during an election that has witnessed sporadic bouts of violence - there is an excess of 73,000 polling stations across Pakistan, 20,000 of which have been deemed a security risk. But, for Sharif, who has been traversing the country by helicopter, it is his promises on the economy that he hopes will hand him the mandate he so craves. "Our political philosophy revolves around economic progress," said the man who has pledged to turn Pakistan into an "Asian tiger". "If a country is economically strong, it is able to solve all the problems, whether law and order or political extremism."

He was born Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif in December 1949, in Lahore, the capital of Punjab. His family were Kashmiri immigrants who had settled in Punjab, the country's most populous province, in the late 19th century, and his father, Mian Muhammad Sharif, was the proprietor of a cast-iron parts venture, who later rose to become a prominent industrialist. Sharif's road to political stardom began as a constituency representative and soon moved to national prominence as a protégé of military dictator, Gen Zia Al Haq, in his time as Pakistan's ruler from 1977 to 1988. During that period, Sharif cut his teeth as Punjab province's finance and then chief minister. By all accounts, he never really showed a particular flair for politics, but as an able political administrator during these ministerial briefs, Sharif assumed the premiership of this restive Islamic republic for the first time in 1990.

Sharif, one of the few major politicians in Pakistan not on a hit list of Taliban insurgents who have pledged to cause upheaval during the elections, showed his more conservative streak in 1991 when he attempted to make Sharia the nation's supreme law. But, just two years later, his first stint as prime minister came to an end, paving the way for the then-opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, wife of Asif Ali Zardari, to form a new administration.

Like the proverbial rubber ball, however, Sharif bounced back after a comfortable majority saw him return to the top job for a second time in 1997. But, this tenure was not without its controversies, either. In 1998, he gave the go-ahead for Pakistan's first nuclear tests, and a series of constitutional changes did little to endear him to the judiciary and the army, which would, under the authority of Musharraf, bring about his dramatic downfall in 1999.

If Sharif's fall from grace demonstrated one thing, it was the pure folly of crossing swords with the country's military. Convicted of hijacking and terrorism after he refused to permit Musharraf's airliner to land in Pakistan, Sharif was given life imprisonment; and after being found guilty of that age-old political crime of corruption, he was also given a life ban from any political activities. But for an apparent Saudi-brokered deal, Sharif and a number of his family members would have found themselves locked up in a Pakistani prison cell at Musharraf's pleasure. Instead, he was exiled to Saudi Arabia in 2000 for what was supposed to be a decade.

But, ever the calculating politician, the two-time premier cut short his time in the political wilderness by three years. In November 2007, Sharif, almost certainly taking advantage of the political uncertainty that had arisen during Musharraf's negotiations with Bhutto - who was assassinated just days before elections in December that year - headed back to his homeland to challenge the man who had publicly humiliated him

Sharif's political counter-attack, so long in the making, paid off - and handsomely. In the 2008 parliamentary elections, his PML-N party made spectacular gains at the expense of Musharraf's allies, which included some one-time Sharif supporters who had thrown in their lot with Musharraf after the wealthy industrialist's exile. Sharif then made an alliance with the PPP, which had emerged with the largest number of seats, and Musharraf's forced resignation followed. Sharif's re-emergence onto Pakistan's political scene was now complete.

Yet, just one year later, Sharif, who couldn't have possibly reckoned his return to the cut and thrust of Pakistani politics would be a serene affair, found himself up against the very man, who had helped him put away Musharraf - President Zardari. Sharif, together with his Punjab chief minister brother, Shahbaz, was prevented from standing for public office by the country's Supreme Court, and Sharif put the finger of blame on Zardari for ordering the decree. With a handy penchant for getting his own way, Sharif not only succeeded in getting the ruling quashed, but also in getting Zardari to return PML-N-sympathetic judges removed by Musharraf.

According to many commentators, Sharif has developed into a more nuanced politician since the 1990s. His 39-year-old daughter, Maryam, speaking to The Telegraph this month, agrees. "I think those years of struggle, those years of hardship, those years of adversity, they have made a better, stronger and more mature Nawaz Sharif," said the woman who has been out campaigning for her father in his Lahore constituency. "He's a thinker now. I think there's no hunger or greed for power. This is the time he wants to do something for the country."

The country may not be in love with the ruling party and actively looking for a changing of the guard, but many are watching the fortunes of the former Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party with a keen eye. A strong challenge to Sharif from this charismatic sporting hero, who was badly injured after falling from a makeshift hoist during a political rally on Tuesday, would not be out of the question come polling day.

But, should Sharif prevail - and a period of grace will likely be in short supply - then his in-tray will make for a terrifying spectacle. Economic reforms are seen as imperative to mitigate against a balance of payments crisis in Pakistan - and Sharif has pledged to slash government expenditure by a third in order to win global support for the economy. But, in a country that has also suffered greatly from terrorism in recent years, and which has been buffeted by war in neighbouring Afghanistan, many analysts fear that a Sharif-led government will lurch to the politico-religious right, thus causing much more in the way of confusion in the fight against militant Islam.

Such concerns are, however, for another time. But, in the event of an electoral triumph, Sharif's passage to power may be as gentle as it gets.


The Biog

December 25, 1949 Born in Lahore

November 1990 to July 1993 Enjoys first stint as prime minister but is eventually dismissed

February 1997 to October 1999 Enjoys second stint as prime minister, but is ousted in coup by army general Pervez Musharraf

2000 Exiled to Saudi Arabia for 10 years

November 2007 Flies back to Pakistan three years early to challenge the rule of president Musharraf

2008 Helps to secure Musharraf's resignation

May 11, 2013 Attempts to become Pakistan's prime minister for a record third time

Published: May 9, 2013 04:00 AM


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