ISLAMABAD - Former president Asif Ali Zardari’s return from self-imposed exile – expected next month – has nothing to do with Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif’s retirement, party leaders have said.

General Sharif will hand over command of the army to Lt-General Qamar Javed Bajwa on November 29 after completing three years at the top.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed Lt-Gen Bajwa over the weekend.

He also elevated Gen Zubair Hayat as the chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.

Zardari had flown abroad in June 2015, after his controversial speech in which he had criticised the country’s military leadership without clearly mentioning any names.

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) however, claimed that Zardari was abroad for treatment purposes.

Senior PPP leader Nadeem Chan, who was appointed party’s general secretary for central Punjab, said Zardari’s return was not linked to Gen Raheel Sharif’s retirement.

“We take General Raheel Sharif as a good soldier. We have nothing against him. We respect him. Zardari’s return has nothing to do with his retirement. He is coming on his own sweet will,” he said.

Chan said Zardari would most likely attend the December 27 gathering on the death anniversary of late former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

“You will see both the father and the son together hopefully. There is no leadership struggle in the party,” he added.

Chan said Bilawal would continue the lead role in the party even after Zardari’s return.

“Now Bilawal is the party chief and he will continue in that role. Zardari will be more like a guide and we will consult him over national affairs. Bilawal will be the chief executive from now on for the PPP,” he maintained.

According to reports, Zardari would be returning to Pakistan between December 10 and 15.

He is likely to declare next game-plan of the PPP regarding the PML-N government. The city of return is also yet to be decided as the party leaders believe it could be Lahore, Karachi or Larkana.

Reportedly, the PPP co-chairman will himself announce the final date of return. Party leaders say a truck was being prepared on which the party’s co-chairman would travel.  The former president had earlier said he was not living in exile and he would come back to Pakistan in few weeks.

As Zardari prepares to return, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif feels the PPP might be in a mood to take on the government.

The prime minister had recently said the PPP was returning to the politics of the 1990s when his Pakistan Muslim League and the PPP took turned to rule the country and remained engaged in a fierce battle.

Nawaz had said the Charter of Democracy signed between the PML-N and the PPP in June 2006 was “not working”. The premier had said the revival of the politics of the 1990s would not benefit any pro-democracy party.

On the other hand, Asif Ali Zardari has been categorical in his support for democracy. 

In a recent interview, he said that democracy would develop in the parliament, and not in courts.

The former president said that what if a commission set up by the Supreme Court could not produce any fruitful result over the Panama Leaks case, then “what [would be] the advantage of establishing such a commission.”

Zardari reiterated he was not exiled, and was abroad on his own free will, and would soon return to Pakistan.

PPP lawmaker Senator Farhatullah Babar said that there was no infighting over party leadership upon Zardari’s return.

“Bilawal is the PPP chairman and Zardari is the co-chairman. Both have their jobs to do and have been doing this for a while now. There is no confusion in the PPP about their roles,” he added.

Senator Babar said Bilawal had been taking important decisions in the recent weeks indicating his control over the party.

“Bilawal is the chairman for a reason and Zardari is not interested to clip his powers. Everybody in the PPP respects Zardari and accepts Bilawal as the chief,” he remarked.

Fuelling the heat, PPP Central Punjab President Qamar Zaman Kaira has warned Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to accept the four points laid by Bilawal, “if he wants to save his government.”

Kaira claimed that in case the prime minister did not surrender to their demands, then his party would lead such a campaign that the government would not be able to stand it.

Bilawal had asked the federal government to meet his four demands - passage of the draft Panama bill, immediate appointment of a permanent foreign minister, reconstitution of the parliamentary committee on national security, and implementation of the resolution on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passed in a multi-party conference - till December 27.