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Nawaz Sharif: Pakistan's new leadership contender

Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf sent envoys to London this week to negotiate with two former prime ministers whose possible return may threaten his hold on power.

By Shahan MuftiCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2007



Islamabad, Pakistan

President Pervez Musharraf's meticulously managed political stage was jolted this week by the news that he may face challenges to his power from not one, but two, of Pakistan's exiled former prime ministers.

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The Supreme Court ruled that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – whom General Musharraf ousted from power in a 1999 military coup – is free to return to the country, adding to the political challenge posed by another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who willingly left Pakistan after Musharraf's coup. Musharraf reacted by immediately sending an envoy to London to push along a sputtering and stalling political deal with the two former leaders.

The London meeting may indicate that the Pakistani president, faced with two formidable former prime ministers as opponents, a newly emboldened judiciary, and hostile public opinion polls, may be ready to cede some of the political space that he has dominated by force and manipulation for nearly eight years.

So far, Musharraf's moves toward sharing power have been tentative. But this week's decision amplifies the political pressure on Musharraf to compromise with one or both of Pakistan's former leaders and to eventually restore democracy.

"After this decision, Musharraf must be tempted to forget about 'accountability' and focus on political survival," says Rasul Baksh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Musharraf's most likely survival hatch, analysts say, is to cooperate with Bhutto, with whom Musharraf has been negotiating for months. But while Musharraf has preferred dealing with the more flexible Bhutto thus far any power equation that he engineers from now on is likely to include Sharif, a political heavyweight from the crucial Punjab region – Pakistan's largest province.

"If the president isn't able to rope in Benazir now, he could be facing a situation worse than ever before," says Hassan Askari Rizvi, a former professor of Pakistan studies at Columbia University. The new political equation, Mr. Rizvi says, has pushed Musharraf further into a corner where he may be desperate to reach a deal quickly.

"You can't even completely rule out a renewal of the alliance between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif," Rizvi says, referring to the short-lived "Charter of Democracy" that the two leaders signed in opposition to Musharraf's rule last year.

Many of Sharif's old party members who now support the president, observers say, may be emboldened to defect when the former premier returns. Cracks have already begun to appear in the ruling coalition government that supports Musharraf. One cabinet minister resigned this week, citing the president's reluctance to rule as a civilian.

The legal decision allowing for Sharif's return, analysts say, also ratchets up the judiciary's pressure on Musharraf to implement democracy: With the Supreme Court showing unabashed defiance, it now seems increasingly unlikely that the military leader will be able to hold on to his dual role as chief of Army and president.

"Nawaz Sharif's entrance will no doubt create a big stir," says Mr. Rais. If a free and fair election were held in Pakistan today, he says, "Sharif would certainly come out on top."

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