The narrative which the PML-N supremo will bring will be a big factor, says Asma Shirazi

KARACHI: Political commentators feel that the fragile economic situation; Nawaz Sharif’s ‘narrative’; how he deals with Imran Khan; and the Punjab voter’s alleged proclivity for voting for establishment parties are the immediate challenges that await Nawaz as he returns home today. For some analysts, though, Nawaz Sharif’s politics are well past their sell-by date already.

The News talked to political commentators on what challenges Nawaz faces as he returns today to Pakistan after five years in medical self-exile.

Journalist and political analyst Asma Shirazi says that with Nawaz’s return, “one can say that after quite some time political activity will start.” She is quick to remind though that it is “another matter that when Nawaz Sharif was jailed, only the PTI was allowed to hold rallies or conduct politics without any fear, and now the PML-N will be allowed to engage in political activities without fear. So, in a way the roles have shifted. The circumstances may be the same and even the incidents and events may be the same but the characters have changed.”

On the challenge that the PML-N faces with regard to the party’s dwindling political fortunes, Shirazi feels that if Nawaz manages to “lead an impressive rally and gathers a large crowd at Minar-e-Pakistan and also manages to give an agenda of some sort today then I think there can be a revival of his party which had been missing for some time.”

What may be a big factor in how Nawaz tries to take on the challenges on offer will be the narrative he comes with now, says Shirazi: “When he left, the narrative Nawaz Sharif had adopted was completely different and he’s coming back with a presumably different narrative — that is: from a narrative of resistance to one that is different, a narrative of a roadmap. One will have to see if people accept him and his narrative in the peculiar economic situation we are in right now.”

She adds that “Punjab’s temperament is another factor that will have to be seen. The Punjab voter has always been accused of supporting the establishment. So the PML-N may not want to squander an opportunity to show that the establishment is supportive of the party. If today garners a large enough crowd, Nawaz could manage to create a wave for his party’s revival.”

Mosharraf Zaidi, political analyst and foreign policy commentator, sees Nawaz Sharif as “the de-facto founder of the democratic order that has been unraveling over the last seven years. His immediate challenge is whether he is a credible guardian of that fragile order.”

One of the challenges Sharif could face is sticking to the principle of forgiveness, feels Zaidi who tells The News that, although “forgiveness and benevolence is a political strategy that Nawaz has employed before, to do so with Imran Khan will require superhuman and perhaps unnatural levels of commitment to principles.” Without these principles, according to Zaidi, “all of the other things the Sharifs want to be known for will diminish in stature.”

Economist Dr Khaqan Hassan Najeeb is looking at the economic questions the PML-N supremo faces: “Pakistan’s economy is in need of serious reform and administrative actions that have been put in motion. Whichever party takes office, it would have to prepare a serious structural reform plan for repairing the economy, energy sector and privatization of SOEs, to put the country on a growth path. Handling an IMF program would be another serious challenge. All this would require a political force to put together a highly competent team to implement strategic reforms to take people out of economic hardships.”

According to Dr Najeeb, “A more aware and involved youth, the implosion of social media, and the high inflationary bout have fundamentally changed the electoral landscape of Pakistan and remarkable effort and planning would be required to navigate the country to a more hopeful future.”

Journalist Mehmal Sarfraz feels that the set of challenges facing Nawaz are myriad, “given that he does not have a proper narrative anymore and his party’s popularity has taken a hit after 16 months of being in power.” She says that, while Nawaz could “talk about the Pakistan of 2017 when the country was doing well, it wouldn’t resonate with people today as they’re reeling under high inflation and they mostly blame the PDM government’s mismanagement of the economy, especially under Ishaq Dar who was said to be Nawaz’s personal choice for finance minister.”

On Nawaz’s electoral efforts, Sarfraz says that “he will lead his party’s campaign but it seems that there may not be any real opponent in Punjab given that the PTI’s electoral future is still in doubt.” In that sense, Sarfraz says, “the real challenge for Mian Nawaz will be the credibility of the next election and how he will deal with being part of a real hybrid government.”

There is another view on Nawaz’s grand homecoming, one that is not too enamoured with the former prime minister’s promises. Lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii says that “Nawaz is being framed as a saviour whilst returning to a country where the majority of the people have indicated it’s him and his party they would like to be saved from. He is coming back to deny he was calling the shots in the period of the PDM government, where his relative in finance destroyed the economy whilst his relative as PM destroyed the democratic process and surrendered civilian space.”

Jaferii also feels that the demographic landscape has changed and Nawaz is not as relevant as he was in times past: “He is an old man, surrounded by old advisors, coming back to an old support base in a country where the vast majority are young and unable to connect with his vision or his supposed mission. His party and its politics have passed their sell by date.” In part this is because the PML-N “made one too many deals where they sacrificed pretend principles”, says Jaferii, “but mostly because they have been found out on every front in the past year and a half.”

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