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Nawaz Sharif: The old ‘lion’ of Pakistan roars back

Throughout his eventful life, Nawaz Sharif has served terms as Pakistan’s prime minister and time in prison. He’s also faced a coup and years in exile. But now the old “lion of Punjab” faces some of the biggest challenges of his political career.


On the bloody 2013 Pakistani campaign trail, as international audiences were grappling with headlines of deadly election-related violence, residents of the eastern city of Lahore were confronted with a danger of a feline nature -- perched on a car.

Making its way through the noisy streets of Lahore, a live white tigress majestically surveyed the gaping crowds.

At times, the convoy bearing the tigress passed cars and street stalls strapped with stuffed-toy versions of tigers and lions, many of them shoddily-created replicas of the real thing.

The white tigress disdainfully regarded the cheap imitations as the convoy of honking cars with singing, dancing and shouting supporters moved on.

Sandy, a white tigress owned by a Nawaz Sharif supporter, was taken to numerous campaign rallies. Despite reports that she had died due to heat and exhaustion, Sandy is alive and well, according to a BBC reporter who interviewed her owner.
Sandy, a white tigress owned by a Nawaz Sharif supporter, was taken to numerous campaign rallies. Despite reports that she had died due to heat and exhaustion, Sandy is alive and well, according to a BBC reporter who interviewed her owner.

Election campaigning is a colorful affair in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and the inclusion of Sandy, the white tigress, in the fray did not, for the most part, raise too many eyebrows on the streets of Lahore.

In the weeks and months leading up to Pakistan’s landmark May 11 election, parts of the Punjab appeared to have turned into a giant Disney store, with stuffed lions and tigers glaring from unsuspecting corners of the province.

For the average Punjabi, or, indeed, the average Pakistani, no explanations for this feline fever was necessary.

Nawaz Sharif, the former Pakistani prime minister and seasoned politician, is better known as “Babar Sher” -- or lion -- in his homeland.

The symbol for his PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League) party is the tiger -- in a country where an estimated 45% of the total 186 million population is illiterate and looks to party symbols to identify their candidates on ballot papers and campaign posters.

In Urdu, the word “sher” can mean tiger or lion, accounting for the intermittent use of the big cats on the PML-N campaign trail, which caused some confusion among foreign correspondents covering the 2013 election.

But for Sharif’s supporters, the minutiae of a tiger’s stripes or a lion’s mane hardly mattered.

The big old cat was back and in roaring good shape.

From mangy cat to roaring lion

Five years ago, during the last election, Sharif was more of a mangy cat than a lion, putting up a pitiful showing on the campaign trail while his main rival, the PPP (Pakistan Peoples’ Party) roared to power, boosted by a wave of sympathy following PPP leader Benazir Bhutto’s December 2007 assassination.

Both Bhutto and Sharif had arrived in the country in 2007 from their exiles in the Gulf to contest the 2008 election. But while Bhutto -- in life and death -- electrified the campaign, her arch-rival Sharif appeared clearly lost and out-of-touch with the issues plaguing his homeland after seven years in exile in Saudi Arabia.

What a difference a full term in office makes.

After five years of PPP rule, Pakistan’s economy today is in shambles. The impoverished South Asian nation is burdened with growing unemployment, soaring inflation, plummeting standards of living, a massive fiscal deficit and tax-dodging elites in a country where only 0.5% of Pakistanis pay income tax, according to IMF figures.

Levels of violence -- including Islamist attacks and criminal kidnappings -- have soared, with the security forces clearly unable to maintain security.

For the average Pakistani, the frequent power cuts -- sometimes stretching for 20 hours a day -- are the surest indication of the economic rut in which the PPP has plunged the country.

Turning Pakistan into the next Dubai

If Pakistan’s poorest are the hardest hit, the country’s business classes are chafing with the poor infrastructure, power cuts and lack of foreign investments.

Image of a Nawaz Sharif campaign poster. The PML-N party symbol features at the bottom.
Image of a Nawaz Sharif campaign poster. The PML-N party symbol features at the bottom.

Enter the “Lion of Punjab” -- the wealthy industrialist who has promised to turn Pakistan into a regional Dubai.

Born into an affluent business family, the 63-year-old politician’s father, Muhammed Sharif, was the founder of the Ittefaq Group, a multimillion dollar enterprise that started off as a steel foundry before expanding into sugar processing, paper and textiles.

The PML-N’s pro-business platform is in stark contrast to the image of the PPP -- which is still associated with the disastrous socialist and nationalization programs of PPP founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The Bhuttos and the Sharifs have long dominated Pakistani politics, with each dynastic heir claiming to speak for the country’s toiling masses despite their considerable family assets.

While the Bhuttos hail from Sindh, the Sharifs have made the Punjab their stronghold, and the rivalry between the two clans still has an impact on Pakistani politics today.

"In terms of social belonging, Nawaz Sharif represents the industrial aristocracy while the Bhutto clan is part of the landed aristocracy," said Karim Pakzad, a researcher at the Paris-based IRIS (Institute of International and Strategic Relations), in an interview with FRANCE 24.

But even in a country where the old feudal social structures survive in the rural and tribal hinterlands, some things are changing.

Talking to the Taliban - again

In the old days, Pakistani politics used to be a two-horse race between a Bhutto and a Sharif. But these days, there’s a third man in the ring and all eyes are now focused on the rise of Imran Khan and how it could affect the ambitions of the Lion of the Punjab.

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In many ways, Khan, a former cricketer-playboy-turned-politician, has touted a platform similar to Sharif’s on the campaign trail.

Both politicians have blasted US drone strikes and touted a softer line on the Pakistani Taliban, calling for peace talks with the militant Islamist group.

For their part, the Taliban have reciprocated the overture by not targeting Sharif’s and Khan’s rallies on the campaign trail.

But as every Pakistani knows, once in power, their civilian leaders confront a very different reality.

On the one hand, the Taliban have a proven track record of reneging on past peace deals. On the other, the all-powerful Pakistani military is in no mood to listen to what a civilian leader has to say about managing the country’s domestic and regional security.

Enter the Pakistani military, the institution that has held the real reins of power in the country’s 66-year history and is all-too familiar with the man called Babar Sher.

Sharif and Musharraf: A strange twist of fates

In a quintessentially Pakistani twist of fate, the military man who ousted Sharif from power in 1999 during his second truncated term as prime minister today languishes under house arrest.

Earlier this year, former President General Pervez Musharraf followed in the Pakistani tradition of leaders returning from exile to contest an election.

But Musharraf has been disqualified from candidacy and has been put under house arrest in connection with the Benazir Bhutto assassination case.

While the military may be embarrassed to see one of their former top men in detention, they may not like to be seen overtly interfering in Musharraf’s judicial process.

But the generals are keenly aware of Sharif’s bumpy track record with their former military chief and they will be keeping a close eye on the seasoned politician during his third stint as prime minister.

It was Sharif, after all, who established a détente with neighbouring India after Musharraf masterminded a disastrous proxy war in 1999 by dispatching troops to seize territory in the Kargil district of Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Urged by then US President Bill Clinton, Sharif hammered out a ceasefire with India, much to the chagrin of the military.

But he won praise from Washington for his flexible handling of the crisis, and in India Sharif has always been viewed as a man willing to work out a solution to the longstanding Kashmir crisis.

On the 2013 campaign trail, Sharif had promised his supporters that if he becomes prime minister for the third time, he will ensure the military follows the orders of a civilian government.

But populist promises on the campaign trail are a world apart from the realities of office. As every Pakistani surely knows, when it comes to domestic and regional security, the military is unlikely to follow the orders of a civilian leader.

As Sharif makes Pakistani history by becoming the country’s prime minister for a third non-consecutive term, it’s uncertain if the new man on the job will be able to live up to his Babar Sher moniker or if he will be prove to be just a mangy alley cat after all.

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