Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Sharif’s comeback nearly complete as Pakistanis head to the polls

Nawaz Sharif, middle, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, addresses an election rally in Islamabad on May 5. Pakistan's general elections will be held on Saturday.


Overthrown, imprisoned and exiled to the political wilderness, Nawaz Sharif has staged a remarkable comeback.

The Lion of Punjab, as his supporters call him, is on the cusp of becoming Pakistan's prime minister for a third time in historic elections Saturday, while his younger brother, Shahbaz, is expected to regain control of the country's most populous and wealthy province, Punjab.

For more than 30 years, dogged by allegations of egregious patronage and questionable megaprojects, the Sharifs have hung on as Pakistan has convulsed and teetered. Even in their dynasty's darkest moments, they have remained both relevant and regal, amassing a personal fortune that allowed the clan to build a palatial residence, an estate with peacocks and deer roaming the grounds and two stuffed African lions outside a room where guests are received at the 283-hectare property near Lahore.

Story continues below advertisement

The Sharifs are betting that Pakistanis see them as a great hope of entrepreneurial spirit, a dynastic duo who can combat dismal economic growth, aggressive Taliban destabilization and diminishing security after winning the first democratic change of power in the country's history.

Along a dusty, rural road lined with textile factories and sugar mills lies the village of Manga Mandi – part of a whistle-stop tour for the Sharifs before campaigning officially ended Thursday. Several thousand are crammed into a village square. Party posters depicting the two brothers line the buildings as songs blare over loudspeakers. Rivals supporting the Sharif brothers' main opponent – former cricket superstar Imran Khan – taunt the crowd by showing a Khan election poster from atop a building behind the stage. The crowd roars.

For Rana Imran Haider, the young organizer of this rally, the Sharifs will be good for business.

"When it was [Nawaz Sharif's] tenure until 1999, the industry was booming. Everybody was happy. For the last five years, the industry has been crashed. I belong to the textile industry, more than 500 units – textile mills – have been shut down because of electricity crisis, because of security issues," Mr. Haider said. "They [the Sharifs] can solve these problems."

Minutes later, the electricity cuts off and the village is plunged into darkness. There are cheers and cackles as rally-goers switch on the built-in flashlights in their cellphones and wave them above their heads.

Power reliance is a big issue in this country. Pakistani experts estimate that, in 2009, power outages affecting factories and manufacturing cost the economy $3.8-billion, or 2.5 per cent of the GDP. Since then, the electricity problem has only worsened.

And the question of how much outside countries can rely on Pakistan's authority over its extremist elements is another issue. The stakes in this election could not be higher for the country – or the region.

Story continues below advertisement

What is at stake

The Pakistani Taliban is waging a resilient insurgency in the tribal areas and frustrating the army. It has carried out suicide attacks and bombings across the country – killing more than 100 people, often secular political party activists and candidates – in the three weeks before election day. And it now controls chunks of Karachi, the country's largest city and Pakistan's commercial engine.

Pakistan's neighbour, Afghanistan, is imploding slowly under its own Taliban insurgency – which it blames on Pakistan. Its relationship with India is mired in mistrust and animosity over Pakistan-based jihadi groups carrying out attacks in India. At a time when Western powers are cracking down on Iran over its nuclear program, Pakistan has signed a deal to build a gas pipeline with Iran to meet its energy needs.

The world looks to Pakistan to solve its internal wars, seal its borders and stem the flow of militants in a nuclearized region already roiling with tension.

Those problems will likely wind up at the desk of the doughy, energetic and unbowed Nawaz Sharif. At 63, and with two tumultuous terms in the prime minister's chair behind him, the aging lion sees his last chance to rule the kingdom. His main challenger, Imran Khan, toppled nearly five metres from a makeshift platform at a Lahore rally on Tuesday and broke three vertebrae. He now lies in a hospital bed but may yet play the role of spoiler.

"[The lion] will roar on May 11th, everyone else will run away," Mr. Sharif promised tens of thousands of supporters at a rally in southern Punjab last month. But his opponents are not so easily frightened – even with the occasional display of an actual caged lion at some Sharif rallies. His victory is by no means a certainty.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Sharif's probable victory is somewhat improbable when one considers the 2x3-metre prison cells in which he and his brother languished after a military coup, led by Pervez Musharraf, in 1999. (Or for that matter, the seven years in exile in Saudi Arabia and the UK that followed for the Sharif clan.)

This time around, the campaign message is captivating and quixotic. Mr. Sharif said recently that Pakistan and India had wasted billions of dollars in a futile arms race and should sit down and negotiate, which would be welcome sign for those who see that there are other threats in the neighbourhood to consider. That opinion, though, can't be too popular with the army, whose support he will require to keep the country stable.

He has also hinted that there isn't a military solution to the country's struggle with the Pakistani Taliban. "I think guns and bullets are always not the answer to such problems," Mr. Sharif said in an interview with Reuters, suggesting that negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban was one of the options that should be pursued.

Ambitiously, Mr. Sharif promises to turn Pakistan's economy into an Asian tiger. His main promise is to solve the electricity crisis – which has left factories silent, hurt small business and forced families to cope with outages. Pakistanis are frustrated with their government's rationing of electricity, which leaves the country without power for 12 hours or more over the course of a day.

Continuing the Sharif love affair with transportation, Mr. Sharif has promised high-speed bullet trains that will carry passengers from the port city of Karachi to northwestern Peshawar in a day. The Sharif stamp is already on the country's first major super highway built in the 1990s between the capital Islamabad and Lahore – a lavish $1-billion project in a country with one of the lowest literacy rates and lowest health expenditure as a percentage of GDP in South Asia.

"The Sharifs have been around for 30 years, a lifetime. Their specialty all these years has been the quick-fix gimmick," wrote former Sharif ally Ayaz Amir in a column last month for Pakistan's The News International newspaper.

Family dynasty

The brothers' family fortune was established by their father, Mian Muhammad Sharif, who migrated to Pakistan from Amritsar, India, following partition in 1947 and founded a steel mill in Lahore.

But the policy of nationalization in the 1970s under Pakistan Peoples Party leader and prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto hit the Sharif family especially hard when the steel business was taken over – leading to a long-standing political rivalry and enmity between the Sharifs and Bhuttos.

The emergence of military strongman and Islamist Zia ul-Haq changed all that.

After Mr. Bhutto was deposed in a coup in 1977, the brothers backed the general. Nawaz Sharif rose through the ranks, leading key ministries in military-led governments. The Sharifs regained their steel mill and expanded the family business into textiles, sugar mills and agriculture, becoming among the wealthiest families in Pakistan.

As the prime minister who came into power in democratic elections in 1990, held after the general's death in a plane crash, Mr. Sharif eventually served twice as prime minister – dismissed in 1993 over corruption and poor governance allegations and overthrown in 1999 by the army after just two years in office.

Over the past two decades, the Sharifs and Bhuttos have emerged as the two most powerful political families in Pakistan. The enmity calmed after a 2006 agreement signed between Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. The Charter of Democracy committed both politicians to strengthening the civilian government and curbing the power of the military.

Since Ms. Bhutto's assassination in 2007, the Sharifs have tangled with her widower, President Asif Ali Zardari – with Shahbaz Sharif delivering the sharpest attacks, referring to him as "Ali Baba" and his cabinet as "the 40 thieves."

Out of power for the past five years, though, Nawaz Sharif has relied on his younger brother's achievements as outgoing chief minister of Punjab.

Shabhaz has been credited with gains in public health and curbing a dengue epidemic, and improving enrolment and attendance – of students as well as teachers – in Punjab schools. Other projects, such as awarding free laptops to students, have been called gimmicks.

He is said to want to lead the Ministry of Water and Power, but his older brother wants him to stay on as Chief Minister in Punjab – the family stronghold.

It is nearly 11 p.m on Thursday, the last official day of campaigning.

In Lahore, the older Sharif is making one last pitch to be prime minister: "If you give us five years, you will see that we can change the fate of this country."

In Manga Mandi, Shahbaz Sharif steps onto the stage to tell the audience that, with its help, his brother, Nawaz, will be prime minister after Saturday. And he promises electricity. "Or my name is not Shahbaz Sharif," he shouts in a voice strained by a gruelling schedule. Five minutes later, he is back in his car and heading to one more rally.

Next time the electricity goes off, though, fewer in Manga Mandi may be laughing.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to