Former exile Nawaz Sharif plays kingmaker

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The Independent Online

Beneath an ochre-coloured wall close to the Badshahi mosque in Lahore, Mohammed Aslam was somehow trying to find a way to feed his family.

He had two rickety carts, one loaded up with chunks of fresh sugar cane and the other with sliced carrots. He said he was lucky to earn £1.20 a day and yet he had seven children to feed. He hardly needed to say how much he struggled.

"I will vote for Nawaz Sharif," Mr Aslam said of next Monday's vote. "He helps the poor, he gives them money." Another man standing close by, Mohammed Iqbal, was also planning to vote for Mr Sharif. "He is very good for the country. When he was in government the textile factories opened and we could get jobs."

Lahore represents the heartland of support for Mr Sharif, twice Pakistan's prime minister and the victim of a 1999 military coup led by Pervez Musharraf, which saw him forced into exile. After being deported by Mr Musharraf when he tried to return to Pakistan from that exile last September, he was finally allowed back into the country only to be barred by the government-appointed election commission from standing as a candidate.

While he may not be running himself, Mr Sharif is a crucial component of these elections. Not only has he been campaigning furiously for his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, but if polls are correct and the vote results in a hung parliament, it is almost certain Mr Sharif will find himself in the position of kingmaker.

Most estimates suggest the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the late Benazir Bhutto will win most of the seats but not the simple majority required to form a government by itself. In such circumstances it is almost certain it will be the PML-N to which it will turn for support. The two parties have already discussed co-operation.

In an interview last night, Mr Sharif said he was hopeful about the election but that it was unclear "what the government wants to do or what Mr Musharraf has up his sleeve".

He added: "I think all the democratic forces have to get together and move Pakistan ... away from the shadow of dictatorship. We can work with Mr Musharraf if he restores the judiciary to what it was before the emergency, and restores the constitution to what it was before his coup, and lets the judges decide on his legitimacy as president. These are high demands, but this is what Pakistan needs."

Pakistan's collective political memory is short. Such was the extent of Mr Sharif's unpopularity in 1999 and so great were the allegations of corruption within the country, many welcomed the intervention by Mr Musharraf. Nine years later, with Mr Musharraf's own popularity at an all-time low and with Mr Sharif having presented himself as a principled opponent to his rival, the former prime minister's stock has soared.

"He got us the nuclear bomb," said another of his supporters, Mohammed Asif, referring to his decision in 1998 to carry out Pakistan's first declared nuclear test in response to tests carried by India a few weeks earlier. "He built the roads. He wants to do something for the people."