Having returned from a four-year, self-imposed exile, the path to power for Pakistan Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif may appear paved but it is also true that within the next few months he will be at a crossroads again and forced to make difficult choices.

If he is cleared by the courts to run for office and leads the next government, as all indications are that he may (I am not talking of opinion polls or surveys that are indicative of popular support), there will be intense demands on his “civilian” credentials to let justice prevail and allow the opposition their liberty, freedom and space to operate.

As things stand he is being called the establishment’s “ladla”. If he were to err on the side of his democratic instincts, would he risk falling foul of the powerful forces that facilitated his potentially phoenix-like return after he was down and out?

Clearly, the state of the economy has been identified as a serious existential issue that needs to be addressed urgently. If Nawaz Sharif were to bury the hatchet, seek a more congenial political atmosphere and secure the release of Imran Khan and his supporters jailed mostly on dubious charges, will they take to the streets again?

The impact of any such protest on the economy will determine the extent of civil liberties and political rights in Pakistan. Who knows if the party said to be the most popular in the country then faces more curbs on it and remains excluded from the process and how that itself rocks the boat as well.

The 73-year-old, three-time former prime minister began his political career after he was handpicked as Punjab’s finance minister by the province’s military governor, Lt-Gen Ghulam Jilani. After the partyless 1985 elections, he took over as chief minister, ostensibly under the prime ministership of Muhammed Khan Junejo but remained loyal to his chief mentor General Ziaul Haq.

When Zia sacked the Junejo government – he couldn’t reconcile with the exercise of powers by even his own chosen prime minister and dissolved parliament – as if on cue, Nawaz Sharif rebelled against his party leader and ousted Junejo.

Thus, he continued to endear himself to the military leadership. When Zia was killed in an air crash he vowed at his graveside to take his “mission forward”. And he did, as he became the major tool in the hands of the then Inter-Services Intelligence chief Hameed Gul. He worked on the latter’s agenda to block Benazir Bhutto’s path to power including deploying a vile misogynistic and parochial campaign ahead of the 1988 elections and partially succeeded.

Through most of the 1990s the two parties played a revolving-door game to power, instigated by the military and facilitated by presidential powers to sack governments and dissolve parliaments gifted by the dictator to himself before he perished in that Bahawalpur PAF C-130 crash.

Bhutto and Sharif shared two truncated stints each in power from 1988 to 1999. During their short tenures, they persecuted each other relentlessly and viciously. Finally, in October 1999, General Pervez Musharraf’s coup dislodged the Sharifs from power and lodged them in prison.

They also faced, like the Pakistan People’s Party leaders before them and more recently the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leadership, the flimsiest of charges and were sentenced to life in prison for “hijacking” Gen Musharraf’s homebound PIA plane by ordering its diversion to another airport away from the flight’s destination Karachi.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leaders were later freed and exiled in a deal brokered by the Saudis and Lebanese leaders and stayed long years in Saudi Arabia before moving to London. While in Saudi Arabia, Bhutto called on Sharif and initiated a dialogue, as there appeared to be a realisation that while the two popular parties were at each other’s throats, the usurper was making hay.

In May 2006, this dialogue resulted in the signing of the Charter of Democracy (CoD) by the two leaders, pledging adherence to democratic norms from then on. By the following year, elections were called and Bhutto’s long and deft negotiations with the military leader created space for both her PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

Tragically, Bhutto was assassinated as an enraged dictator refused to provide her security despite a suicide bomb attack on her in Karachi just weeks earlier. Musharraf was hoping she and Mr Sharif would not return to campaign, enabling him to manipulate the polls. She defied him and convinced the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader to do the same.

This isn’t to suggest the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party have embodied the CoD completely since then, but it’s safe to say they have shown considerable accommodation as evident in the adoption of the landmark 18th Amendment which strengthened provincial autonomy and cemented the federation.

After the 2013 elections, when the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf emerged as the largest, albeit short of a majority, single party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Nawaz Sharif told his provincial leadership not to try for a coalition, which seemed possible and viable, but to let the party with the biggest mandate form the government. That was the turning point in Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s fortunes, a launching pad.

Nawaz Sharif doesn’t seem to have an issue with who is facilitating his return to power now, as those near him say, he truly believes it is incumbent on those who plotted his ouster 2016 onwards to set right that wrong.

The question is that, back in power will he revert to acting democratically or rule in the mould of Imran Khan? More fundamental, how much freedom will he have to make that choice and other similar ones?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

This article was first published on Dawn.com.