Can Nawaz Sharif's Dream Of Fourth Time Prime Minister Come True?

PML-N expresses confidence that the party supremo will be cleared in time to contest polls but concedes not having a Plan B

Can Nawaz Sharif's Dream Of Fourth Time Prime Minister Come True?

Ever since deposed prime minister and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supremo Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan in October, his party's confidence has grown that the mountain of legal hurdles that stand between him and contesting polls and potentially being elected as a prime minister for the fourth time, will evaporate in time. But as the days start counting down to February 8, 2024, general elections, and the matter continues to linger, some believe the party could end up in a blind alley unless they devise a backup plan. 

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is expected to announce a schedule for February's general elections this week, despite Thursday's decision by the Lahore High Court (LHC) to halt the appointment of bureaucrats as returning officers and prompting a halt in their training by the commission. While some believe the verdict will delay the polls, the process for nominating and scrutinising candidates for elections is expected to commence soon after the schedule is announced. But if Nawaz is not cleared legally to contest elections by the deadline to submit nomination papers, it could put his party's dream of seeing him take oath as prime minister for a fourth time fall into serious jeopardy.

Nawaz Sharif, who entered Pakistani politics in the mid-1980s, made history in the past decade after he became the first politician to be elected as the prime minister for a record third time, having been elected to the post in 1990, 1997 and 2013. However, on none of these occasions was he able to complete his five-year constitutional term.

He first took charge as prime minister on November 6, 1990. But his government was dismissed on April 18, 1993, after spending just two years and seven months in power. He returned to the prime minister's hot seat on February 17, 1997, but after spending another two years and a little over eight months, he found himself out of power after being overthrown in a military coup on October 12, 1999. 

Nawaz returned to the prime minister's office for a third time on June 5, 2013, and remained leader of the house for four years and two months before he was dismissed by the apex court on charges of concealing assets on July 28, 2017.

After spending two years in and out of prison, he left Pakistan on medical grounds in November 2019. He did not return until four years later, on October 21, 2023. 

Prior to his return to Pakistan, it was uncertain whether he would be able to overcome the grave legal challenges which prevent him from qualifying for a party ticket and contest polls. However, soon after returning, former federal defence minister and senior party member Khawaja Muhammad Asif announced that Nawaz Sharif would not only look to contest polls but would also be the party's prime candidate to become the prime minister.

In the weeks since, Nawaz has seen many cases against him evaporate. The latest case was the corruption reference in the Al-Azizia Steel Mills. The Islamabad High Court (IHC) struck down his conviction by an accountability court, which had sentenced him to serve seven years in prison.

"Nawaz Sharif has been acquitted from all cases [convicting him]. He can contest the next polls," asserted former federal planning minister and PML-N senior leader Ahsan Iqbal.

Speaking to The Friday Times, he said that returning ECP officers who receive and scrutinise candidates' nomination papers will have no justification to disallow Nawaz's nomination.

Iqbal was also confident that the Supreme Court would not prevent Nawaz Sharif from contesting the upcoming elections.

His confidence was echoed by PML-N's legal experts, who believe there remains no bar on Nawaz that will prevent him from contesting in February's polls.

This confidence and Nawaz's active political presence in Pakistan have seen PML-N leaders evolve consensus on Nawaz as their preferred candidate for the prime minister's slot after the elections. Background discussions with the party's heavyweights showed that they believe there is broad consensus on Nawaz as the party's candidate for the prime minister's seat with no objection raised.  

Other senior PML-N members reiterated how the party has reposed its confidence in Nawaz's leadership.

Asked about an alternate plan in the event Nawaz fails to get the bar removed in time, Iqbal said that not only is Nawaz Sharif currently the only consensus candidate of the party, but is the need of the hour to heal the country and to use his stature globally.

"We have not discussed an alternative plan on this matter," Iqbal conceded.

In case the chips do not fall as the PML-N wishes, a senior party politician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the matter, said that some names could be considered for other key posts such as that of the President, which will also come up for elections immediately after the general elections.

Criticism from other parties

While the PML-N has worked to project the idea of Nawaz Sharif becoming the prime minister for a fourth time, it has received a prickly response from other parties.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which spent 16 months in a coalition government with the PML-N after helping eject former prime minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) founder Imran Khan from power, has fancied taking on the reins of government after the next elections and has campaigned for that position.

PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has used every opportunity, every political event, to target the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif.

"Raiwindwala has become the prime minister three times and now wants to be selected for a fourth time" has become Bilawal's favourite chant to mock Nawaz. The young PPP leader has asserted that even if Nawaz manages to get 'elected' as prime minister for a fourth time, he will not be able to deliver.

Bilawal has also been at the forefront of those complaining about the absence of a level playing field for political parties in the upcoming polls.

In the country's topsy-turvy political landscape, one of the scenarios that opponents have been discussing is that Nawaz has yet to secure clearance from the Supreme Court to contest polls, which had slapped him with lifetime disqualification. 

Legal expert and senior PTI member Advocate Shoaib Shaheen told The Friday Times that the ball of Nawaz Sharif's qualification is still very much with the courts.

"Nawaz Sharif may still be disallowed from contesting in the polls," he said while pointing to the pending legal challenges for Nawaz, including cases where he was acquitted but where appeals could be filed and the complicated legal matter surrounding his lifetime disqualification.

Shaheen said that until all the matters are decided, which they expect will be wrapped up in January, the fog will not clear on Nawaz's fate.