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Understanding Pakistan

Pakistan and the return of Nawaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif is favored to win Pakistan's parliamentary elections on Saturday. Like no other political veteran, Sharif illustrates how complex and encrusted the corridors of power are in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

There are certainly more charismatic politicians in Pakistan than Nawaz Sharif. He is no electrifying orator, no barnstorming firebrand. He works best in front of an audience when he reminisces about the past.

At one point on the campaign trail, Sharif told his listeners in a speech that before he was prime minister "there were no highways and no modern airports" in Pakistan, adding that the big nuclear facility in Chasma wouldn't be operating if it had not been for him.

Sharif likes to present himself as a man of action, as the one who gets things done, and as a self-confident nationalist, who always puts Pakistan first. With a healthy dose of anti-Americanism you can always win points with the Pakistani electorate.

"We won't knuckle under to a super power, like the United States. We have negotiated eye-to-eye with America and refused its handouts. We cannot be bought. With us Pakistan was always a sovereign state," Sharif stressed at a recent rally in Sargodha.

Sharif favored to win

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif gestures as he talks to the media after a press conference in Islamabad. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti, File)

Nawaz Sharif has already been prime minister two times before

All the latest opinion polls have tapped Nawaz Sharif as the front runner. But Imran Khan's Movement for Justice is a threat to be taken seriously with its millions of young, urban voters; in particular, in the country's most populous and decisive province of Punjab.

Punjab is Sharif's home turf. His younger brother runs the family's affairs there. However, if too many votes are lost in Punjab, it could complicate Sharif's return to power. To counter that possibility, the 63-year-old Sharif is courting young people – among other things, by giving away free laptops.

"With the help of Allah we will change this country for the better. We have shown in the past that we stand for change. And if we can govern again, we will revolutionize this country, but to do that we need you, my young friends," Sharif said in Sargodha.

Nawaz Sharif comes from a wealthy industrialist family. His religious-conservative Muslim League is essentially a family business and the party of big money and big landowners. Sharif became an influential politician through his support for a military dictator and was forced to leave the country after a coup d'état by another military dictator.

"My relation to the military is okay, and I want the military to abide the law; to abide by the constitution of this country and do whatever is needed within its own domain. So many military takeovers have been destructive, totally destructive. I hope that lessons [have been] learned by everybody and that no attempt will be made in future to derail the country from democracy," Sharif said in an interview with DW.

Confrontation unavoidable?

Supporters of former Pakistan's premier Nawaz Sharif dance as they gather outside the their party office during election campaigning in Lahore on April 15, 2013. Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Pakistan, but indicators suggest Sharif is likely to emerge the biggest winner from the general election on May 11, which will mark the country's first democratic transition of power. AFP PHOTO / ARIF ALI (Photo credit should read Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Sharif draws much of his support from the nationalist, religious right and his home turf of Punjab

Ali Dayan Hasan, the head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, summed up Sharif's election agenda as an "anti-military policy from the religious right, whose goal is to strengthen civilian politics." The Muslim League hopes to win votes from the middle," he notes, "but, at the same time, has maintained its traditional links to extremist religious groups."

Hasan is deeply worried "that things will get worse before they get better." "We are going to witness a right-wing, religious-conservative government that will try to appease the extremists. But, in the end, a confrontation is unavoidable," he warned.

If Nawaz Sharif is actually elected prime minister for a third time, he will inherit a country on the brink of disaster. Not only terrorism, religious extremism and crime threaten to bring down the country and its constitution. Pakistan is also faced with a crumbling infrastructure, hours of blackouts, extreme poverty and unemployment. The economy is a mess. Politics and the bureaucracy are corrupt and riddled with nepotism. The Sharif clan is also accused of enriching itself. But if opinion polls are correct, then a majority of voters consider Nawaz Sharif to be the lesser of the existing political evils.

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