Pakistan: a new Sharif in town
The former prime minister's return on Sunday could fill the opposition's leadership void.
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Sharif's exile had been part of a political settlement, in which he promised to leave the country and not participate in political activities for 10 years. Musharraf toppled Sharif's government in a bloodless military coup in 1999 and filed charges of treason and hijacking against him.Skip to next paragraph
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Sharif had attempted to return to the country in September, bucking his Saudi hosts' advice to remain in exile. But Musharraf had Sharif deported before the former premier could exit the airport.
Sharif's close Islamist connections
Sharif's strong ties to Islamist political parties have attracted suspicion from some Western governments that have traditionally counted Musharraf as an ally in the US-led war on terrorism.
Sharif first rose to prominence when he was appointed as chief minister of Punjab in 1985 under the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, the military ruler who initiated the first wave of political Islam in the country. Sharif became prime minister for the first time in 1990, winning the election in an alliance that included Jamat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in the country.
Ever since, Sharif's on-and-off relationship with Islamist parties appeared to be a convenient formula to keep archrival Ms. Bhutto at bay. Working with these parties, Sharif also enacted legislation in both his terms as prime minister to introduce sharia, or Islamic law, to Pakistan's political and economic systems.
"He has the option to lead the resistance in the streets," which has gone without any solid leadership so far, says Mr. Rais.
"My hunch is he'd like to gamble on these new forces of political change rather than rely on the establishment," he says.
Others seem to believe that Sharif is returning under the auspices of a political deal, much like Ms. Bhutto did last month, and that he will engage in negotiations with Musharraf upon his return. "The Saudis have probably advised him to join the election process," says Mr. Abbasi, because much like the Americans, "they are concerned with maintaining stability in Pakistan," he says.
But the All Parties Democratic Movement, an alliance of opposition parties of which Sharif will probably find himself at the helm, announced yesterday that it would boycott elections unless the country was restored to the political arrangement that existed prior to Nov. 3, when Musharraf declared a state of emergency. The alliance has demanded the reinstatement of the removed judiciary members in the next four days – a request analysts say Musharraf will likely deny.
Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), on the other hand, has directed its members to file nomination papers for the election before the deadline on Monday. But Bhutto made clear that the PPP's participation was under protest. She expressed her hope that once Sharif returned, it would be possible to convene a united opposition.
But if Bhutto and Sharif boycott the elections, it will mean yet another political deadlock. Some say the vote could still be held, "but the legitimacy of such an election would be in doubt," said Anwar Syed, a professor at the Lahore School of Economics, in a recent column. "What will happen then? The people at large may repudiate the election and come out protesting. In other words the current political crisis may continue."