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.

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.

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."

Sharif, who has lived in Saudi Arabia since 1999, appeared on private television channels over the weekend – his once bald head now hidden beneath a wispy mop of new, grafted hair – and triumphantly declared that he will fly back to Pakistan before the holy month of Ramadan begins in September.

"The coming weeks will be crucial," says Rais, referring to the presidential election scheduled to be held between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15. Winning these elections is Musharraf's immediate focus, he says. "The stage is set and all the important players are now at the table; they're now just waiting to see who makes the next move."

Sharif: From 'zero' to 'hero'?

Eight years ago, few could have predicted this. Sharif, in his two terms as prime minister, had earned a reputation as a corrupt and dull leader. By the time the tanks rolled around he had become one of the most unpopular leaders to rule the country. Even the most educated and politically liberal in Pakistan publicly celebrated his fall from power at the hands of the military.

Sharif tested the waters of his exile once before when he sent his brother Shahbaz Sharif – also in exile in Saudi Arabia – back to Pakistan in May 2004. His plane was promptly turned around at Lahore airport as the government maintained that both brothers were disallowed from entering the country until 2009. This time the Sharif brothers will have the letter of the law on their side.

Musharraf may still block Sharif

Still, how the situation will unfold following their arrival is unclear. Despite his overtures toward democracy and compromise with his two potential rivals, Musharraf's government may still try to prevent Sharif's return.

"We don't know for a fact yet what the government policy will be when Nawaz Sharif arrives," says Rizvi. "I don't expect he will have a very happy landing."

The government could still decide to reopen any number of corruption cases against Sharif, Rizvi explains – some of which could land him in jail. It's also possible he will be barred from campaigning in the next election because of the government's criminal allegations.

Analysts say that one of Musharraf's most important patrons, the US government, is also circumspect about Sharif's reintroduction into Pakistani politics.

"Sharif is close to the religious parties," explains Rais. Sharif's government had attempted to introduce Sharia, Islamic law in Pakistan months before being overthrown, and individuals in his close immediate circle overlap with the Jamat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in Pakistan. "His agenda of religious identity politics doesn't sit well with many, especially the Western powers," says Rais.

Reports have surfaced in the Pakistani media that US-friendly Arab leaders have met with Sharif to dissuade him from returning to his home country. But the shockwaves of Sharif's reentry would hit much closer to home for President Musharraf.

"If Nawaz Sharif is allowed to return and campaign," says Rizvi, "there might be serious reverberations, especially within Musharraf's ruling party."

[Editor's note: The original version of the sub-headline misidentified the Pakistani leader who sent a negotiating team to London.]

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