WHEN Nawaz Sharif recently announced that he would return to Pakistan, not everyone believed him. On July 6th the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anti-graft court, had sentenced the 68-year-old former prime minister to ten years’ imprisonment. In such circumstances, Pakistani politicians usually head to London, rather than leave it. Moreover, Mr Sharif’s wife is on a ventilator in a London hospital. Yet as The Economist went to press, Mr Sharif continued to insist that he would board a flight back to Lahore, his home town, on July 13th. His advent could alter the course of national and state elections on July 25th.

That the NAB, pronounced “nab”, convicted Mr Sharif had come as little surprise. In part, it was because he did not satisfactorily explain how his family came to own four luxury apartments on Park Lane, a posh street in London. The ownership of the flats was made public by the leak in 2016 of the Panama Papers, a trove of documents from a law firm. Mr Sharif claimed that a Qatari investment fund gave the family the properties, to repay a debt owed to Mr Sharif’s father. But the main corroboration of this hazy explanation came in the form of a letter from a shy Qatari prince, which was derided as a “joke” by Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan’s main opposition party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The NAB clearly agreed.

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The family’s lawyer, Khawaja Haris, says they will launch an appeal. The conviction rested heavily on the NAB’s unusual rules, in which the defendant is assumed guilty unless proven otherwise. The true ownership of the apartments was “difficult to establish”, the 174-page ruling frankly admitted. There were procedural anomalies, too. Mr Haris briefly quit, saying that the NAB’s arbitrary rush to reach a judgment—handily, for Mr Sharif’s enemies, just before the election—was undermining the integrity of the proceedings. The case against Mr Sharif was “illogical and full of holes”, argues Junaid Jahangir, a barrister.

Mr Sharif claims the judiciary is working in tandem with the army to remove him from the political stage. The NAB has become “a puppet of the establishment”, says one lawyer, who did not want to be quoted by name. The bureau’s chairman drew ridicule during Mr Sharif’s trial by launching an investigation into whether the ex-PM had laundered almost $5bn through India as prime minister. The case was prompted by a wildly erroneous newspaper article. Even opponents of Mr Sharif acknowledge that the NAB, like the rest of the Pakistani judicial system, has appeared relentlessly focused on him and other members of his party, the PML-N. The NAB arrested Mr Sharif’s former private secretary last week (in order to “pull out each of his fingernails to compromise Mr Sharif”, says the unnamed lawyer), and earlier this month collared a PML-N candidate just hours after he announced he would contest the election against Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, a former senior lieutenant who has since split with Mr Sharif.

Mr Sharif’s return snuffs out any hope of a reconciliation between the PML-N and the armed forces. His younger brother, Shahbaz, the chief minister of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, has long argued for one. In an apparent sop to the army’s presumed preference for a weak government, he has said the PML-N would build a coalition even if it won an outright majority. His response to his brother’s conviction was muted. The older Mr Sharif, in contrast, is driving his conflict with the generals “to a new level”, says Syed Talat Hussain, a television anchor. He has explicitly accused a general in the Inter-Services Intelligence, an army-dominated agency, of running a campaign to induce or coerce PML-N candidates to defect to the PTI. Such openness is unheard of: typically, politicians refer coyly to the army as the “establishment” and mutter darkly about “angels” instead of invoking the ISI by name.

All this sets up an almighty clash on July 25th. Mr Sharif’s absence from the campaign trail seems to have hurt the PML-N. The latest sounding by Gallup, a polling firm, suggests the PTI has closed a previously sizeable gap and is now level pegging with Mr Sharif’s party. Credit Suisse, a bank, puts the chance of Mr Khan leading a coalition government after the election at 75%.

But Mr Sharif’s return may change things. The rank and file of the PML-N are fired up again. His arrest will inevitably be a tense moment: some speculate that his flight will be diverted away from his legions of supporters in Lahore; others that he will be handcuffed on the plane, to avoid a potentially violent scrum with sympathisers in the airport. Whatever happens, Mr Sharif and his daughter are likely to acquire an air of martyrdom. Even if the PML-N still loses the election, by submitting to prison Mr Sharif will have transformed his image from tax-dodger to self-sacrificing campaigner for democracy. That is a result the army would surely rather have avoided.

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