Nawaz Sharif, declaring that he is determined to remove General Pervez Musharraf, has brushed aside fears that he faces jail if he returns to Pakistan. He has also set up a three-way struggle for leadership of the country that looks likely to reach a conclusion this month.
The former prime minister, who was deposed, briefly jailed and exiled by General Musharraf in a bloodless coup in 1999, said he was unafraid of the regime's threats to arrest him on corruption charges if he returns from exile.
"Musharraf's threats can't stop me from responding to my call of duty," he said in an interview. "He must know the tide has turned against him and that he is fighting a losing battle.
"He's already put me in jail before. For 14 months I was kept in solitary confinement. I was kept in a little dungeon in a 16th-century fort and I was treated even worse than a prisoner of war. That is how he treated the country's democratically elected prime minister."
Mr Sharif was overthrown by the army in 1999 and later exiled to Saudi Arabia under a deal that was supposed to keep him out of Pakistani politics for at least 10 years. But last week Mr Musharraf's struggling regime was dealt a severe blow after the country's Supreme Court ruled that the former prime minister could return home. His faction of the Muslim League now leads a coalition that wants to remove the President from office and bring back democracy.
On Thursday, Mr Sharif raised the stakes by announcing he would return to Pakistan on 10 September to challenge the general's rule, which is already mired in a crisis with the country's judiciary. The announcement came against a backdrop of frantic talks between General Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, another former prime minister-in-exile, who is trying to negotiate her own return by arranging a power-sharing agreement with the regime.
Yesterday, Ms Bhutto met leaders of her PPP opposition party in London to decide whether to continue talks with Mr Musharraf, and whether they should set a date for her return, after failing to receive a public commitment from the general that he would relinquish his army role.
Also speaking in London, Mr Sharif attacked Ms Bhutto for negotiating with the general and accused her of reneging on previous commitments not to strike a deal with the military regime. "There can be no deals with dictators because we are struggling for the restoration of undiluted democracy in Pakistan," he said. "But [Bhutto] decided on another course and has entered into negotiations with Musharraf. The democratic forces in the country must not be trying to rescue the sinking ship of dictatorship. This is not the time to shake hands with dictatorship."
The prospect of two of Pakistan's most prominent opposition politicians returning from exile at a similar time will send shivers down the spine of Mr Musharraf, whose once seemingly unassailable rule is looking increasingly frail. Both Mr Sharif and Mrs Bhutto command popular followings back home, particularly in Sindh and Punjab, the two most populous states. Mr Musharraf's dispute with the judiciary, meanwhile, coupled with a rise in violence following the Red Mosque siege in Islamabad and criticism from the White House over his inability to stop al-Qa'ida sheltering in tribal areas, has left his government increasingly isolated.
Unlike Mrs Bhutto, Mr Sharif has consistently ruled out any negotiations with the President, an approach that has made him particularly appealing to Pakistan's Islamist parties but unpopular with Western governments and particularly the US. While Ms Bhutto has been cautious to avoid overly criticising US policy, Mr Sharif is often highly critical of the Bush government's support of General Musharraf.
Yesterday, Mr Sharif accused the Bush government of double standards in the way it selectively promotes democracy. "Bush preaches democracy in Iraq, he preaches democracy in Afghanistan but why is he supporting a uniformed President in Pakistan?" he asked. "Bush must not equate Musharraf with Pakistan."
Critics of Mr Sharif say that, despite his party's supposedly secular politics, his faction of the Muslim League is too close to religious parties, many of which espouse a Taliban-style implementation of sharia law in a country where most Muslims follow the relatively relaxed Hanafi tradition.
But, unlike Mr Musharraf and Ms Bhutto, Mr Sharif's relationship with the religious parties may in fact make him a leader who could stem the rise of extremism inside Pakistan if he is allowed to return.
"Sharif has always had an extremely ambiguous relationship with the religious right in Pakistan," says Farzana Shaikh, an expert on Pakistan at the think-tank Chatham House. "But it could be in the interest of the US, and probably the wider world, to have the Islamist vote channelled through the relatively moderate Sharif faction of the Muslim League rather than the more extreme Islamist parties."
The revolving door of Pakistani politics
* 1977 Army chief General Zia-ul-Haq topples Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (below), Benazir Bhutto's father, and seizes power. Two years later, Mr Bhutto is hanged for conspiring to commit political murder.
* 1988 General Zia dies in a plane crash in August and three months later Benazir Bhutto wins elections.
* 1990 President Ghulam Ishaq Khan sacks Ms Bhutto's government over accusations of corruption, and Nawaz Sharif is elected Prime Minister.
* 1993 Déjà vu as President Khan sacks a government, accusing it of corruption, and elects a new premier. But this time it's Mr Sharif on the way out and Ms Bhutto gets recast as Prime Minister.
* 1996 A new president, Farooq Leghari, sacks Ms Bhutto and calls elections. Mr Sharif returns to the hotseat, going on to oversee the country's first nuclear tests.
* 1999 Mr Sharif's second crack at the premiership lasts about as long as the first. In October 1999, he is pushed out by the army chief he hand-picked himself – General Pervez Musharraf.
* The 1999 coup
General Musharraf is in Sri Lanka when he hears Mr Sharif is trying to remove him as army chief. He races to Colombo airport, boarding a commercial flight to Karachi, as top brass loyal to him begin mobilising. When Mr Sharif promotes General Khwaja Ziauddin to army chief, every senior officer refuses to accept his command. Attempts are made to stop General Musharraf landing by refusing permission to his plane, with 200 people on board. General Musharraf orders the pilot to circle over Karachi though fuel is low. As soldiers surround the control tower, after taking over strategic buildings, traffic controllers relent and General Musharraf lands. The Sharif era is over.
* This year's tussle
24 January General Musharraf starts holding secret talks with Ms Bhutto over a pact to share power
9 March He suspends Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry for misconduct, but it is a gross miscalculation which triggers widespread protests against his continued rule.
10 July More than 100 are killed when General Musharraf sends in troops to the Red Mosque in Islamabad where Islamists are camping out.
20 July General Musharraf's authority is seriously weakened when he is forced to reinstate Mr Chaudry.
23 August Pakistan's top court rules Mr Sharif is free to return. He names 10 September as his homecoming.
29 August Ms Bhutto says General Musharraf has agreed to step down as army chief.Reuse content