Sharif moves quickly to tighten his grip on power: Pakistan's Prime Minister returns to political fray after court victory

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The Independent Online
NAWAZ SHARIF moved swiftly to seal his power as Prime Minister again yesterday after the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled that his dismissal by the President, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, five weeks ago was illegal.

After being restored as prime minister, Mr Sharif survived a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly yesterday. He won with a comfortable 120-seat majority in the 217 seat assembly. Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party, boycotted the vote, as did several renegades from Mr Sharif's centrist Pakistan Muslim League. Members of the fundamentalist Jamaat-Islami party abstained.

Ms Bhutto refused to attend the session, saying: 'I do not feel comfortable going back to such a parliament. I never accepted its legality.' She insists that the 1990 elections which swept Mr Sharif into government were rigged against her.

Mr Sharif reconvened his old cabinet in Islamabad after the Supreme Court, in a surprise verdict, defied Pakistan's autocratic, 78-year-old President by declaring that his 18 April dissolution of the National Assembly was unconstitutional. Mr Khan said he would abide by the court's decision: he has little choice. The President could have declared martial law, but for that he needs military backing. So far, the army chiefs have watched this political imbroglio from the sidelines.

Already, Mr Sharif is preparing for another bruising round with the President. Now that the court has dented the President's prestige and authority, Mr Sharif intends to renew battle with Mr Khan on the same issue which toppled him before: discarding a controversial amendment of the constitution which gives the President the right to dissolve parliament and choose the army's top commander.

For this next round, Mr Sharif is seeking aid from his old adversary, Ms Bhutto. 'I extend a hand to all political forces to help strengthen democracy,' the Prime Minister said yesterday, referring directly to Ms Bhutto.

At first, her response was icy; to crush her personally and politically, Mr Sharif had slammed her husband in prison for more than a year on corruption charges. But later yesterday, she left open the possibility that she was open to offers. 'If the President offers me elections, I'll go with him. If the Prime Minister offers me elections, I'll go with him,' Ms Bhutto said.

Mr Sharif fell because the President was able to lure many of the Prime Minister's own ministers and deputies away from him. A rich industrialist, Mr Sharif had been groomed for office by the President. But his mentor turned on him when he challenged the President's right to choose General Abdul Waheed as the army chief. In dismissing Mr Sharif, Mr Khan accused him of corruption and using his office to make his family one of the richest in Pakistan. Mr Sharif yesterday stopped officials of the caretaker government from removing any files on their investigations against him. Without those files, and with Mr Sharif back in power for another two years, the charges against him will probably vanish.