Pakistan: a new Sharif in town

The former prime minister's return on Sunday could fill the opposition's leadership void.

The return Sunday of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who ended eight years of exile just one day before the deadline to register for parliamentary elections, adds a powerful wild card that could bring either political stability or continued discord to Pakistan in the run-up to the January vote, analysts say.

If Mr. Sharif decides to run in the elections, he is likely to pull in the rest of the political opposition – including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto – with him. His candidacy could provide a much-needed sheen of legitimacy to the process. But if the two-time ex-premier heeds what many in his camp are suggesting and boycotts the election, remaining outside the political process, he could find himself leading a street movement.

"If Nawaz Sharif plays according to the new rules set up by [President Pervez] Musharraf, he would be doing the general a favor," says Rasul Baksh Rais, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, referring specifically to Pakistan's new Supreme Court and elections announced under the state of emergency. If he chooses to stay away from the election, however, "it would delegitimize the entire electoral process and put pressure on Musharraf to get out of the system altogether."

On Sunday, thousands of cheering supporters broke police security barriers around Lahore's international airport to receive Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, who some suggest may become the new face of the party if the government bars his elder sibling from contesting elections.

Sharif flew directly to Pakistan from the Islamic holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia, and was escorted to his vehicle through throngs of ecstatic supporters, before addressing a rally.

A wildly influential and powerful leader from Punjab, the most populous province in the country, and by default the strongest in Pakistan's electoral college, Sharif can expect to emerge as an influential leader once again.

"Nawaz Sharif's return will weigh heavily on the political situation in Pakistan," says Ansar Abbasi, an editor at one of the country's top English newspapers, The News. "Sharif has the power to muster up the opposition forces like no one else," he says.

But Sharif also returns to a country frozen by political restrictions and roiled by violence. His political party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) reported that police detained more than 1,600 of its members before Sharif's plane landed in Lahore. Meanwhile, two suicide bombings killed dozens of security and intelligence personnel in the garrison city of Rawalpindi a day before Sharif's arrival, adding to the continued assault on Musharraf from all sides, despite the installment of de facto martial law earlier this month.

Sharif arrives just as Musharraf, the Army general who deposed him in 1999, faces the lowest point of his eight-year presidency. He is swamped by challenges to his rule from the judiciary, the media, civil society, political activists, and Islamist militants. He has promised to quit his Army post and take an oath as a civilian president within days.

A careful deal with Saudi Arabia

Sharif's return comes on the heels of a visit last week by Musharraf to Saudi Arabia, where Sharif had lived in exile as a guest of the Saudi royal family since 2000. All the parties involved – Musharraf, the Saudi royals, and Sharif and his brother – were tight-lipped about the topics discussed during the visit. But Sharif's arrival days later aboard a Saudi king's plane in Lahore, where he was met by a bulletproof Mercedes gifted by the Saudi family, suggests that the matter of Sharif's return to Pakistan had been discussed.

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.

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."

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