KARACHI: The moment of truth is upon the Sharifs. The nation is waiting with bated breath as accountability court gears up to announce its verdict in the Avenfield reference against the Sharif family on Friday.
The ousted prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his daughter and political heir Maryam Nawaz are in London to be by the side of Kulsoom Nawaz, who is receiving cancer treatment there. They have already petitioned the court to put its verdict on hold until their return. But when they will return, or even if they will return, is anybody’s guess. Sharif and his daughter, however, say they aren’t afraid of jail and will come back to Pakistan as soon as doctors wean Kulsoom off a ventilator.
The Sharif family’s long absence from Pakistan is hurting the Nawaz League’s election campaign. At the same time, it has triggered a guessing game in political circles. Senior political analyst and columnist Zahid Hussain doubts Sharif will return but adds that “he should if he wants to stay relevant” in Pakistan’s politics. Defence analyst General (retd) Amjad Shoaib concurs. “I don’t think he will come back. He will have to face criticism and he has nothing to say,” he says.
Senior journalist and political analyst Mazhar Abbas doesn’t agree. “I believe he knows that his political future is at stake if he does not return,” he told The Express Tribune. “Sharif has no choice but to return to Pakistan if he ‘really’ wants to play an active role in politics.”
“Sharif’s long absence from Pakistan, especially at a time when the general elections are round the corner, will damage his party’s campaign,” Hussain told The Express Tribune. He believes Sharif and Maryam will be returning to a different situation with the Avenfield verdict fixed for Friday (July 6).
“If the verdict goes against them, it will change the political dynamics. A possible conviction will either generate sympathy or demoralise their voters,” he said. “The PML-N is already in disarray, and Sharif’s possible conviction would further widen the schisms.”
Gen (retd) Shoaib says that since Sharif doesn’t have anything to defend himself, he better stay abroad and indulge in a blame-game. Conversely, however, he believes the PML-N’s lackadaisical election campaign would die its own death if Sharif decides not to return.
“His voters are waiting for him, his candidates are hoping he will return and lead their election campaigns,” Gen (retd) Shoaib told The Express Tribune. “Sharif’s false narrative of ‘vote ko izzat do’ is already fizzling out due to his absence. If he is convicted, his narrative will also die its death.”
Abbas agrees with Gen (retd) Shoaib. “If they [Sharif and Maryam] do not arrive at least 10 days before the elections, it will not only damage Sharif’s narrative but also hurt PML-N’s chances in the elections,” he added.
Gen (retd) Shoaib, however, says that Sharif should return and face the situation. “He should do what is expected of a leader: return, face the verdict, appeal if convicted, and lead the election campaign of his party,” he added.
Hussain doesn’t see Sharif getting a clean chit from the court in the Avenfield reference, but if that happens, it would give him a massive boost and “pave the way for his return”. “If he is acquitted, then the debate on his disqualification will also reignite,” he added.
Abbas says he has learnt from PML-N sources that Sharif is planning to return within a week even if the court rules against him. “However, he might extend his London stay if the verdict is in his favour,” he said.
Gen (retd) Shoaib says exoneration would vindicate Sharif. “If he is not convicted of corruption, then he can openly lead the election campaign of his party. It will breathe a new life into the PML-N.”
Abbas believes the PML-N would protest if Sharif is convicted, but would not go for street agitation because it would negatively impact its election campaign. “Traditionally, street agitation is not in their DNA,” he added.