Nawaz Sharif, a three-time prime minister, planned a grand return to Pakistan on Saturday after years of self-imposed exile, seizing an opening in the country’s turbulent politics and economic disarray to attempt another dramatic comeback.
In late 2019, an ailing Mr. Sharif left Pakistan for London in an air ambulance after being granted bail from a seven-year prison sentence. While he is Pakistan’s longest-serving prime minister, Mr. Sharif has never finished any of his terms in office, running afoul of the country’s powerful military or, in the latest case, being toppled by corruption allegations.
On Saturday, a politically revitalized Mr. Sharif, 73, boarded a plane from Dubai bound to Pakistan, where he plans to hold a big gathering the same day in Lahore, his hometown and Pakistan’s political heart. The event will demonstrate how starkly things have changed both for Mr. Sharif and for his bitter rival Imran Khan, who followed him as prime minister and is now incarcerated after losing crucial military support.
Mr. Sharif’s party views his homecoming as a validation, asserting that his previous criminal convictions were driven by politics and based on concocted evidence. The rally in Lahore will be a gauge of the popularity of Mr. Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), before an upcoming general election.
The run-up to the delayed national vote has been overshadowed by the undiminished popularity and charisma of Mr. Khan, 71, a populist former international cricket star who was removed from office through a parliamentary vote of no confidence in 2022.
His party’s strained ties with the military have embittered the country’s political climate. Mr. Khan has blamed both Pakistani generals and the United States for his downfall, accusing them of conspiring to oust him. Both have rejected the claim.
Political analysts said that the military, seeking an established alternative to Mr. Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, appeared to be warming to Mr. Sharif after turning against him more than once in the past.
“Nawaz Sharif’s re-entry is pivotal for both the military and his party,” said Zaigham Khan, an Islamabad-based political commentator. “The military desires his leadership to fill the vacuum left by Imran Khan’s detention and to counterbalance Khan’s ongoing appeal.”
At the same time, Mr. Sharif’s political party is in dire need of his leadership, as surveys indicate that the party’s allure may be fading. By contrast, Mr. Khan remains popular: His approval rating is significantly higher than that of any other major politician, reaching 60 percent in June, according to a Gallup Pakistan poll.
Mr. Sharif’s party, which regained power in 2022 under Shehbaz Sharif, his brother, is confronting a national mood that is hardly festive. An economic downturn and skyrocketing inflation have left people distressed. Loan conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund have led to price increases and subsidy reductions.
In May, inflation reached a record 38 percent on an annual basis, and the country’s currency hit a record low against the dollar in early September before making a significant recovery in recent weeks.
“Inflation is the worst poison for political prospects,” said Daniyal Aziz, a senior figure in Mr. Sharif’s party. He expressed optimism that Mr. Sharif could convince the electorate that he would improve the woeful economic conditions.
During his last term in office, from 2013 to 2017, Mr. Sharif presided over a period of relative economic stability. He was able to complete a few large infrastructure projects while reducing the crippling power outages that have long afflicted Pakistan.
“Nawaz Sharif’s return is a guarantee to the promise of elections, and God willing, he will emerge victorious to become the prime minister once more,” said Khurram Dastgir Khan, a senior leader in Mr. Sharif’s party.
Mr. Dastgir, who has previously held key cabinet positions, brushed off Imran Khan’s popularity and expressed confidence that the PML-N still maintains strong support in Punjab, a province essential for establishing control in the country.
Yet the Sharif political family has consistently battled corruption allegations, along with criticism for its insular approach.
Mr. Sharif stepped down as prime minister in July 2017 after the Supreme Court ruled that corruption allegations had disqualified him. He and his family had been ensnared in the Panama Papers scandal, with allegations that his children had amassed vast offshore wealth and luxury properties in London. His children maintained that the money had been obtained legally.
His party lost the 2018 election to Mr. Khan. But it is now Mr. Khan’s party that finds itself in the military’s cross hairs, with a majority of its leaders defecting politically, going into hiding or under arrest. Mr. Khan himself has been detained since Aug. 5 and faces a spate of legal cases.
As Mr. Khan grapples with his mounting legal challenges, the political path seems clearer for Mr. Sharif. Orders for his arrest in corruption-related cases were recently suspended by the courts. But to run for office, he must have his corruption-related convictions overturned. His appeals have been pending since he left the country in 2019.
Mr. Sharif is known for championing civilian leadership and improved relations with neighboring India. In each of his terms in office, he clashed with the military over governance and foreign policy issues. But this time, Mr. Sharif’s return is widely believed to be a result of covert negotiations with the military.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, one of the country’s largest parties, recently suggested that the election delay might be to accommodate Mr. Sharif’s return.
The election was originally scheduled for November; no new date has been set.