islamabad - Homecomings of political leaders are always dramatic and riveting. In September 2007, Nawaz Sharif was briefly arrested at Islamabad airport and bundled back to exile in Saudi Arabia after he made the first attempt to return to the country and challenge the then military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf. In November 2007, Nawaz managed to return to the country, and in the subsequent 2008 elections, PML-N managed to retake power in Punjab, its traditional power base. This time high drama once again awaits the three-time former prime minister and convicted politician. However, the stakes are much higher for Nawaz compared to more than a decade ago.

The legacy and political future of not only the Sharif family but also of the entire political party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz hang in a perilous balance. Unlike 2007, Nawaz Sharif has lost much the support and sympathy of international powers and backroom negotiators. Locally, a vast swathe of the population reviles the Sharif family as the epitome of corruption and malfeasance. 

The confrontation of the Sharifs with the security establishment has also become institutional. Back in 2007, only Gen Musharraf and his close coteries were seen at loggerheads with Nawaz Sharif and his political party. However, now the mutual mistrust and acrimony have seeped much farther, with poisonous underpinnings. The differences have become irreconcilable, the hatred solidified. Maryam Nawaz, the preferred political heiress of the ousted prime minister, is as determined and resolute in turning the page in civil-military imbalance as much as the security establishment is intent on ensuring to snuff out her political career. The decision of the father-daughter duo to return to Pakistan and face jail, shunning the advice of going into exile of a few years, has, therefore, turned their political struggle into a final cataclysmic battle.

Nawaz Sharif is hoping for a sea of people to welcome him at Lahore airport Friday evening. The plan is to surrender to the National Accountability Bureau after a rousing speech. However, ‘the powers that be’ plan to steal Nawaz’s thunder and intend to shift him and Maryam to Adiala prison in Rawalpindi soon after they step on to the tarmac. PML-N is hoping for some showdown with the police and security forces outside the Lahore airport. The pictures and footage of such a highly charged political moment and scuffle are bound to reenergize the party’s base. Images from Adiala prison would also send a powerful message to the party workers, who have been low on morale and confused about the dichotomy of political messages of Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif and Maryam inside Adiala and Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza out on the campaign trail might save the party to stay afloat the political waters and not sink entirely.

The military on Tuesday rejected allegations of political engineering ahead of the elections. However, such denials and clarifications won’t allay the concerns of PML-N and other political parties except for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Candidates have spoken about pressures, threatening phone calls and summons to safe houses. Such allegations cannot be wished away.

Talk to the military, and from its perspective, the continuous cacophony over its overarching role into the civilian domain sounds hollow and self-serving. The military has evolved and gone through testing and challenging times in the last ten to fifteen years, the officers assert. The present-day general officers and soldiers have not just stood guard at the borders. Each one of them has seen deaths and life-changing injuries too closely; have fought the militants too intensely in the tribal regions. How can it be that their sacrifices be not acknowledged, they ask. How can it be that the soldiers, martyred or maimed in action, did it for personal glory and not for the nation? Is it hegemonic to ask for an honest and financially impeccable political leadership? Such a line of reasoning and questioning would have found quick takers had the preferred alternates to PML-N not been cut from the same cloth. The preferred substitutes lack credibility and are dependent on the same set of ‘electables,’ who have been the bane of Pakistani politics for decades. The pace of accountability has been lightning in the case of Sharifs. It has been blatantly selective in the application of law across the board. The apparent synchronization of the courts and the security establishment cannot be just a one-off. Moreover, even though Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and DG ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor both tried to distance from the controversy over ‘jeep’ as an election symbol, the coincidences are too many and too uncanny. This is partly the reason Nawaz and Maryam have managed to find holes in the narrative parried by the politicians seen close or pliant to the security establishment.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, on the other hand, now has a steady pace. Imran Khan, the prime ministerial hopeful, is hopping from one campaign stop to another with confidence and ease. He is buoyed by the thought that both natural and supernatural forces are on his side.

The response and reception Nawaz Sharif gets Friday will determine much of the momentum with which PML-N will go into the election. Nawaz knows that he is on the brink and he will push the limits. His adversaries will push back in the same manner. It is never a good sign when covers of intelligence operatives are blown or when names of generals holding powerful portfolios in the intelligence apparatus become household names or get embroiled in political controversies. The gloves had come off long ago. Now, there will be a fistfight.