ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived home Saturday on a chartered plane from Dubai, ending four years of self-imposed exile in London as he seeks to rally supporters ahead of parliamentary elections due in January.
Sharif, who was elected prime minister three times, is expected to face tough competition from the party of the former premier and his main rival, Imran Khan. Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April 2022 and is imprisoned after a court convicted and sentenced him to three years in a graft case.
Sharif has been a fugitive since he failed to appear before a Pakistani court in 2019 following his conviction and a 10-year prison sentence on corruption charges.
Khan, at the time, had allowed him to travel abroad to receive medical treatment after complaining of chest pains. Sharif later prolonged his stay in London, saying his doctors were not allowing him to return to Pakistan.
A Pakistani federal court on Thursday granted him several days of protection in graft cases, clearing the way for his return.
At Islamabad’s airport Saturday, legal advisers and senior members of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party gave him a warm welcome. He then flew to Lahore, where tens of thousands of supporters gathered at a public park to greet him. In a speech there, he said he was forgiving all those who caused harm to him in the past.
“I have no intention to take revenge on anyone,” he said in his televised speech.
Sharif also announced his plan for reviving the country’s ailing economy. He said his party would end unemployment, ensure a reduction in inflation and “smash the begging bowl” to avoid reliance on foreign loans. Sharif said he wanted to work with all the state institutions for the betterment of the country.
Sharif also spoke about the political victimization he said he faced after his ouster in 2017. He compared the past performance of his government with his successor Khan, saying the life of the common man was much better when he served the nation as the prices of fuel, electricity and food were affordable.
His comments came as Pakistan struggles with a deepening political turmoil and one of its worst economic crises. In Lahore, Sharif’s supporters decorated the city with his photos and party flags.
“Today I am going to Pakistan after four years and I am feeling very happy with the grace of Allah,” Sharif told reporters before leaving for Islamabad from Dubai. He had arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Friday from Saudi Arabia after traveling there last week from London.
He said Pakistan’s economy and political situation both declined in recent years, according to multiple videos shared by his party on X, formerly Twitter.
But he added: “As I have said earlier, I leave everything to God.” He said he made more than 150 court appearances after his ouster in 2017.
Thursday’s decision by the Islamabad High Court to allow for his return was a major boost for Sharif and his party, which is struggling to counter the popularity of Khan, who remains the leading opposition figure.
Sharif is also facing multiple legal challenges. In 2020, an anti-graft court in Islamabad issued a warrant for his arrest after he failed to return home. The same court on Thursday suspended that arrest warrant until Oct. 24. Another federal court has granted Sharif bail until Oct. 24, giving him protection from arrest until then.
Last month, Sharif claimed that the country’s former powerful army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and spy chief Faiz Hameed orchestrated his ouster in 2017. He had troubled relations with the military.
His party became hugely unpopular after Khan’s removal, when Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz Sharif, replaced Khan, a former cricketer turned politician.
Shehbaz, whose tenure ended in August, failed to improve the economy, though he saved Pakistan from default.
A caretaker government is currently in power and it will hold the vote in January.
Associated Press writer Babar Dogar contributed to this story from Lahore, Pakatan.