By Drazen Jorgic and Mubasher Bukhari
ISLAMABAD/LAHORE (Reuters) – Ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, both sentenced to lengthy jail terms in absentia, are due to return to Pakistan on Friday in a high-stakes gamble to galvanize their beleaguered party ahead of a July 25 general election.
Authorities have mobilized more than 10,000 police officers ahead of their arrival and plan to block roads with shipping containers to shut down the city of Lahore. Supporters of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party say they will march to the airport there, where the former prime minister is due to land, in defiance of a ban on all public rallies.
Sharif is returning from Britain one week after an anti-corruption court handed him a 10-year jail term over the purchase of luxury London flats and sentenced his daughter and political heir to seven years in prison.
Their return could shake up an election race marred by claims Pakistan’s powerful military was skewing the contest in favor of ex-cricket hero Imran Khan.
Sharif alleges the military is aiding a “judicial witchhunt” against him and his PML-N party. The party’s past five years in power has been punctuated by the civil-military discord that has plagued Pakistan since its inception.
“Nawaz really believes this is about democracy and his legacy,” Musadik Malik, Sharif ally and former PML-N cabinet minister, told Reuters.
“That is why he is willing to lose 10 years of his life over this.”
Sharif’s PML-N expects a groundswell of support as he returns from London, where his wife Kulsoom is critically ill and undergoing cancer treatment.
To prevent PML-N workers staging a hero’s welcome on the streets, authorities said they will arrest the father and daughter upon landing and transport them to the capital Islamabad by helicopter, local media reported.
Party officials say the police have started a crackdown against them, detaining hundreds of workers in the early hours on Friday.
Recent opinion polls suggest PML-N has lost its lead nationally to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of arch-rival Khan, whose anti-corruption message has resonated with many Pakistanis.
Khan has painted Sharif as a “criminal” who has looted the state for decades, and welcomes his prison term as overdue accountability.
Sharif was ordered jailed after failing to explain how the family acquired the London flats in a case stemming from 2016 Panama Papers revelations that showed they owned the apartments through off-shore companies. Maryam was convicted for concealing ownership of the apartments. The both deny wrongdoing.
Sharif, 68, has cast himself as a defender of democracy, a far cry from the start of his political life when he was the protege of military dictator General Zia ul-Haq and had his career nurtured by the generals in the 1980s.
He was elected prime minister in 1990-93. A second stint in power was ended by a military coup in 1999, prompting a period in jail for Sharif and years in exile in London. When he returned to power in 2013, he clashed with the military over how to deal with Islamist militants and his desire for friendlier relations with arch-foe India.
After the Supreme Court disqualified Sharif in July 2017 for not declaring a small source of income which he denied receiving, he toured the nuclear-armed country urging voters to protect the “sanctity of the vote”.
“Despite seeing the bars of prison in front of my eyes, I am going to Pakistan,” Sharif told Pakistani journalists this week in London, where he vowed to re-assert “civilian supremacy”.
The opposition Pakistan People Party (PPP) has also alleged “pre-poll rigging” this week, but did not specifically name the armed forces.
The military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half its history since 1947, has denied interfering in modern-day politics. It plans to place 371,000 soldiers around polling stations so there can a “free and fair” elections, it added.
“WE ARE WINNING”
Sharif’s return comes at a time of dwindling fortunes for his party, which one year ago was considered a run-away favorite to retain power.
After the Supreme Court ousted Sharif last July, the courts barred him from heading the PML-N party he founded. His brother Shehbaz became PML-N’s president, but Sharif remains the power behind the throne.
Since then, a host of his allies have been either disqualified by the courts, or face corruption cases. Many PML-N lawmakers have also defected to Khan’s party.
PML-N has also been riven by internal divisions. Sections of the party oppose Sharif’s combative approach against the army and fear it will turn off voters in a deeply conservative and patriotic Muslim nation of 208 million people.
The kind of reception Sharif receives on the streets of Lahore will be viewed carefully in Pakistan, where political popularity is often measured by the size of rallies that politicians can attract.
PML-N leaders say authorities have began a crackdown against union council leaders, the street-level party workers who bring out people on the streets.
“Those who think they can scare us…open your ears and hear this: we are winning this election,” Shehbaz Sharif told reporters in Lahore on Thursday.