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Ahead of elections, Sharif's return heats up Pakistan politics

Tensions rise between PML-N and military

Pakistani former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Now that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has returned as leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistani politics has become more fractious ahead of next year's general elections.

The Supreme Court disqualified Sharif from his position in July on grounds of tax evasion in a ruling considered by many to have been instigated by the military. The former premier's return to the political scene is thought certain to intensify confrontation between the PML-N and the military.

Sharif took office as Pakistan's prime minister for the third time in 2013. On July 28, the highest court of the country disqualified him from holding public office as a national assembly member and prime minister following the revelation of his overseas assets in the so-called Panama Papers. The court ruled that he had been dishonest.

Sharif also stepped down as the head of the PML-N which bans disqualified members from holding leadership positions.

On Monday, however, the PML-N, which has a majority of seats in the lower house of the parliament, amended the election management law and its party constitution. The party elected Sharif as its leader again the following day.

In the absence of other candidates, Sharif has returned to the leadership of the PML-N as hoped for by the party. The PML-N is seeking to expand its influence in a campaign aimed at the military.

"There have been attempts again and again to exit me, but you will always keep giving me an entry again and again," Sharif said to PML-N staff on Tuesday after his re-election.

Sharif was also expelled from the post of prime minister in 1999 in a successful coup d'etat under the leadership of then Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf. He was expelled from Pakistan in 2000.

The word "attempts" that Sharif used in his speech on Tuesday evidently reflects his grudge against the military.

Sharif and the PML-N believe that the military's attempt to oust Sharif was behind the Supreme Court's ruling in July, said political experts in Islamabad. "PML-N believes the army and intelligence agencies do not allow its government to have good relations with India and Afghanistan, and thinks a conspiracy is hatched to oust Sharif from politics," one expert said.

A man reading about the disqualification of Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court, in Peshawar, Pakistan on July 29.   © Reuters

Sharif met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi twice in 2015 in a bid to improve the adversarial relationship between the two neighboring countries. But he failed to make substantial progress, reportedly because of the military's intervention.

On Tuesday when Sharif returned as the head of the PML-N, the military held a meeting that lasted as long as seven hours. The military issued no statement after the meeting, which political analysts said indicated its disapproval of his return.

The military has stepped up political activities. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan's army chief, led a delegation to Afghanistan on Oct. 1 and held talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. "It is against the protocol ... the military is dealing with the issues which is the domain of the government," said a political expert in Islamabad.

Islamabad is promoting a $55 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project jointly with Beijing. "It will not be correct to say CPEC was not affected at all by the change of the prime minister," Lijian Zhao, deputy chief of mission and minister counsellor at the Chinese embassy, told The News, a Pakistani newspaper, voicing China's concerns about the political situation in the country.

Pakistan's economic and political relations with its neighboring countries may greatly change, depending on how the fight between the PML-N and the military ends.

Tahir Khan in Islamabad contributed to this story.

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