Briefing: Sharif vows to regain leadership of Pakistan

Former premier returns to popular acclaim in effort to prevent Musharraf, the coup leader who forced him into exile, from extending his presidency
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The Independent Online

Nawaz Sharif, who twice served as Pakistan's prime minister only to be ousted in 1999 by a coup led by General Pervez Musharraf, returns from exile tomorrow to again seek his country's leadership. He says he is determined to prevent the man who forced him from office from securing another term as president. Some believe he could even pull it off.

Why is this happening now?

Pakistan's Supreme Court – invigorated by the return of its ousted Chief Justice – ruled on 23 August that Mr Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, had the right to return to the country without being "hampered or obstructed" by Musharraf's government. Sharif went into exile in 2000 in a deal brokered with Saudi Arabia to avoid prison charges brought by Musharraf. As part of it, Sharif and his family were exiled for 10 years, and the former prime minister was banned for life from involving himself in politics. However, Sharif's lawyers argued that the agreement had no legal basis and the Supreme Court agreed.

What are Sharif's chances of success?

For the past six months Musharraf has been fighting to hang on to his presidency amid bad news and falling support. His attempt to oust the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhary, backfired spectacularly and his decision to storm radicals holding the Red Mosque in Islamabad this summer, left more than 100 dead and incited a violent backlash by extremists that has left scores of police and soldiers dead. Musharraf has been left extremely vulnerable to a challenge but has been working hard to cement a deal with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto, who served two interrupted terms before being forced from power amid corruption allegations and who then left the country in self-imposed exile to London and Dubai. She is due to announce this week the date of her own return to Pakistan. Such has been the turnaround in the country's political climate that while Musharraf was cheered when he forced the unpopular Sharif from power, Sharif's popularity and that of his Pakistan Muslim League-N has soared in recent weeks as a result of his stand against the military leader. He has also threatened to undercut Ms Bhutto by his refusal to do a deal with Musharraf.

What threat is there to Sharif?

If Musharraf cements a power-sharing deal with Bhutto, there could be very little room for Sharif to manoeuvre. The president needs to be elected by a vote from the regional and national assemblies. A deal with Bhutto would see the elected members of her Pakistan's People's Party (PPP) throw their support behind Musharraf serving another five years. In exchange, he would lift a constitutional ban preventing anyone from serving three terms as prime minister, opening the way for her to again become the country's premier. But there is also the threat that Musharraf's government could seek to arrest Sharif on his return, a move that would surely backfire but which, given the panic within the Musharraf government, could happen. On Friday, a court issued a warrant for the arrest of Shahbaz Sharif while the government reopened old corruption charges against the former premier. Sharif, the man who oversaw Pakistan's nuclear weapons test in 1998 in response to one by India, is hoping that the media attention his return will receive – flying to Islamabad and then driving south to his home city of Lahore – will offer him some protection.

Are there any other alternatives for the people of Pakistan?

Pakistan's people have not been well served by either their military or civilian leaders since independence in 1947. The experience of the Chief Justice's campaign for reinstatement, which saw countless thousands of ordinary citizens pour out to catch a glimpse of him, suggest that voters are ready to back someone who is prepared to stand up to the military government. There were even suggestions that the judge himself might run.

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