Political pundits had written him off. Not many experts had expected him to return to Pakistan from the UK to face prison. But ex-PM Nawaz Sharif is set to land in Lahore on Friday, in what rights groups and liberal analysts say is an all-out confrontation with the South Asian country's powerful army generals.
Last week, an accountability court sentenced Sharif to ten and his daughter Maryam Nawaz to seven years in jail for Panama Papers-linked corruption charges. Sharif says the cases against him are "politically motivated" — a scheme by the military and the judiciary to keep him out of politics and pave the way for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan to become prime minister after the July 25 general elections. The army, the judges, and Khan deny these claims.
Read more: Former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif sentenced to 10 years in prison
But independent analysts and rights groups have pointed to a systematic crackdown on Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party and media ahead of the vote as proof of "pre-election rigging." Even Sharif's political opponent, the Pakistan People's Party headed by ex-Premier Benazir Bhutto's son, Bilawal Bhutto, has complained of electoral fraud.
Since Sharif announced his return to Pakistan last week, hundreds of PML-N activists and officials have been arrested by the Punjab province's caretaker government. Streets leading to the Lahore airport have been barricaded by police to impede the former premier's supporters from receiving their leader. Authorities also blocked mobile phone and internet services ahead of Sharif's return.
According to local media reports, Sharif and his daughter will be arrested from the plane as soon as they arrive in Lahore, and will not be allowed to step out of the airport.
A possible clash between the security forces and Sharif's supporters could trigger a wave of violence across Punjab and lead to the postponement of elections, observers say.
A sudden wave of violent attacks has already gripped the country, as a bomb killed at least 20 people and wounded 40 others during an election rally in restive Baluchistan province on Friday. Pakistani media reported the blast killed Nawabzada Siraj, a Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) candidate and brother of former Baluchistan chief minister Nawab Aslam Raisani.
A suicide bomb attack killed at least 13 people and injured at least 54 others in a blast at a political rally in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Tuesday. Haroon Bilour, a candidate for the Awami National Party (ANP), which has been the target of Islamist militants for its opposition to groups such as the Taliban, was killed in the attack.
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Pakistan at a crossroads
For the first time in Pakistan's history, a popular politician from Punjab — the country's most-populated and electorally most significant province — has openly challenged the military generals, who also derive most of their economic and political clout from the province.
Before leaving London for Lahore, Sharif said that Pakistan is being governed by "a state above the state," alluding to the military's influence in the country. Prior to his July 6 conviction, he also "admitted" to Pakistan's involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people in India.
Sharif also told a London press conference that as prime minister he had asked the military to rein in Islamist militants to avoid international isolation. Pakistan's army denies backing jihadist proxies in Afghanistan and India-administered Kashmir.
"Civil-military relations deteriorated during Sharif's tenure. Sharif's arrest could fuel these tensions," Zahid Hussain, a political commentator, told DW.
he three-time prime minister, who was once a prodigy of former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, has increasingly adopted an anti-military tone in the past decade. He has advocated for friendly ties with India and a change in Pakistan's Afghanistan policy. Both, analysts say, have not gone down well with the generals.
"If get arrested, Sharif is likely to get 'sympathy votes,'" Abdullah Dayo, a political analyst, told DW. "Sharif has been successful in promoting his narrative about civilian supremacy," he added.
Read more: Opinion: Pakistan needs ex-PM Sharif's political role now more than ever
Sharif has not completed a single term as prime minister. He was ousted by former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf in a coup in 1999, and his latest sacking came in July last year when the Supreme Court disqualified him from his post on corruption charges.
So the significance of Sharif's return to Pakistan is not legal but political. Pakistan is at a crossroads between the supremacy of the civilian rule and the army's behind-the-scenes control on almost all matters of the country, analysts say.
Sharif also fights a battle for his political survival. Had he not decided to return to the country and face imprisonment, the chances for the PML-N to secure a victory in the July 25 parliamentary vote would have been over.
Upon his return and arrest, Sharif has the legal option to appeal against his sentencing.
"Sharif's homecoming will have implications for him and his party," said political analyst Hussain.
A 'corrupt politician' or a 'history-maker'?
Mir Hasil Bizenjo, former shipping minister and Sharif's close aide, told DW that the former premier is not ready to bow down to the military.
"We knew that they would punish Sharif for asserting his democratic rights and civilian authority. But Sharif has decided to confront the military establishment for the sake of democracy and Pakistan's future," Bizenjo, a politician from Baluchistan province, said.
Read more: Pakistan bars ex-premier Nawaz Sharif from politics for life
Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a political analyst, says the court's July 6 decision was political in nature and that it "proves that politicians are selectively targeted."
"No [corrupt] military general has ever been sentenced in Pakistan," Khan told DW.
However, Arif Alvi of Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, Movement for Justice) party said that the verdict was "a warning to all those who engage in corrupt practices."
PTI leader Khan hailed the accountability court's verdict as an endorsement of his years-long campaign against corruption in Pakistan.
Many people in Pakistan hold the Sharifs and the Bhuttos responsible for amassing illegal wealth and bad governance for the past three decades. For them, the accountability of the PML-N and the PPP is paramount to ushering in an era of prosperity in Pakistan, which they dub "new Pakistan."
The manifesto of Imran Khan's party resonates well with a large section of the Pakistani middle class due to its emphasis on governance issues — particularly corruption and political accountability.
"Khan's stance on corruption, terrorism and nepotism in Pakistani politics has struck a chord with the masses, which are fed up with the traditional ruling elite. He has no corruption charges on him, no foreign assets," claims PTI activist in Islamabad, Khawar Sohail.
Read more: Imran Khan: Nawaz Sharif's ouster 'strengthens Pakistani democracy'
But some observers argue that Khan is backed by Pakistan's right-wing groups, and in particular the military establishment, because of his "soft" stance on the Taliban and other Islamist militants. His rise in Pakistani politics, they claim, is due to his "good relations" with the military's Inter-Services Intelligence organization. Khan agrees with the agency's positions on matters such as Afghanistan and Pakistan's national security, they say.
But most people in Pakistan are not bothered about the country's Afghanistan policy or its ties with Washington. They need jobs, security and an end to corruption in governmental departments. For them it is not important whether friendly ties with India would put Pakistan on the path of progress in the coming years; they want change now. That is why Khan has been able to capitalize on public sentiment against "traditional" politicians like the Sharifs and the Bhuttos.
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After losing to Sharif's PML-N in the 2013 election, Khan's supporters believe their leader has a shot at the premiership this time around.
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But the July 25 vote has already been marred by pre-rigging complaints and a crackdown against PML-N.
Sharif's imminent arrest could unleash more instability — possibly violence — in the country.
The next government will have to tackle not only a massive domestic turmoil but also a difficult regional and international situation. The US demands Pakistan to "do more" in Afghanistan and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to settle the protracted conflict. The Trump administration has already scaled down Pakistan's military aid. International terror watchdog FATF has put Pakistan on its "gray list" for sponsoring terrorist organizations. If the next government does not satisfy the international community, Pakistan could be placed on the FATF "blacklist," which will strangle its economy.
And by opting to return to Pakistan, Sharif has already sent out a message to the international community that a military-backed government cannot clean this mess.
Additional reporting by Shah Meer Baloch and Sattar Khan, DW's correspondents in Islamabad, and Rabia Bugti.