The return of Pakistan's ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif to the country on Friday was a 'political necessity', said analysts, adding that this will also determine the fate of his party in the coming election and in the long run.
Sharif, who claims he is being targeted by the country's powerful security establishment, is fighting for his political life as his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party limps into the final weeks of campaigning ahead of nationwide polls on July 25.
He was arrested along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz on his return to the country Friday, where he faces 10 years in prison for corruption, ahead of already tense elections his party claims are being rigged.
The election will pit the PML-N against its main rival, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a party led by cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan. The powerful military is accused of working behind the scenes to favour Imran's campaign for the polls. Imran denies the accusation.
Sharif maintains that his political party is being victimised due to their attempts to question the role of various non-elected institutions in domestic politics and in foreign and security policy.
On the other hand, the country's judiciary, as well as other major state institutions, not only deny Sharif's claims but also assert that PML-N's leadership has failed to curb corruption in its party's ranks, which became the reason for his recent ouster from the prime minister's office.
Moreover, for Sharif, the ongoing efforts to isolate his political party are not just focused on pushing the former out of Pakistan's political system, but are also aimed at weakening and dismantling his political organisation.
A few days ago, Sharif, in a press conference in London said that some state institutions are approaching his party's candidates to force them into leaving the PML-N and are threatening them with dire consequences if they didn't give up their support for him.
Politically, for Sharif, the upcoming election is a do or die situation in terms of the future of his party.
“Who wants to go to jail?”, Sharif told the Guardian from the Etihad airlines flight. “But it is a very small price to pay for my mission, which is to establish the sanctity of the vote in Pakistan.”
“For Nawaz and Maryam, the decision to return was important. Ever since 1999, Nawaz has been scarred by the taunts that he fled the first chance he got. So, this time around, he needed to do this to wash away that black mark,” said political analyst Adnan Rasool, referring to his exile in Saudi Arabia after his ouster by military ruler General Pervez Musharraf in 1999.
“For Maryam, this is the tipping point where she can legitimately play herself to be like the person she has modeled her career on i.e. Benazir Bhutto.”
“Another factor being ignored right now is that the party is now crafting a social identity for itself beyond just a political party. The party may have been founded by the patronage of a dictator, but it has essentially built the perception now as the only one to stand up to the iron-fisted interventions of the powers-that-be,” Rasool told Dawn, Pakistan's leading daily.
Sharif rose to political prominence during the time of military leader Gen Zia ul-Haq who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988. But he also has a chequered history with military. And his recent move to improve ties with India was not received well by the country's powerful military.
When asked why the Sharifs returned despite knowing the treatment they will receive at home, political analyst Arifa Noor said they had no option.
“Well, I think it was a political necessity. They have been in power for the past five years. They have stakes in Pakistan. … so if they had stayed away, they would have created too many legal and political problems.”
“Nawaz wants to pass his political legacy to his daughter, so if they hadn't returned, they would have lost all of this,” she added.
"If Sharif does not come back, his party is over," analyst Rasool Bakhsh Rais told AFP ahead of Sharif's homecoming.
"If he comes back, he will have to fight cases and he will be suffering a lot -- but in this way he will save his party."
Nawaz Sharif was the 15th prime minister in Pakistan's 70-year history -- roughly half of it under military rule -- to be removed before completing a full term.
The military remains the most powerful institution in the country, and has faced allegations in recent months that it is pressuring the media and politicians in a bid to manipulate the polls against the PML-N.
The military has denied the accusations, and said it has "no direct role" in the elections.