Sharif to fight sacking in courts: Pakistan's former PM appears to be outgunned in presidential 'coup'

A DEFIANT Nawaz Sharif, the sacked prime minister of Pakistan, yesterday challenged President Ghulam Ishaq Khan's dismissal of his conservative Islamic government and vowed to fight him in the courts.

Mr Sharif was ousted on Sunday night in a presidential coup after months of quarrelling with Mr Khan, his one-time mentor, who accused him of corruption, subversion and nepotism.

After 30 months in power, Mr Sharif was forced to clear his belongings out of the prime minister's residence in Islamabad yesterday morning with unceremonious haste.

'My dismissal was illegal and immoral,' Mr Sharif protested. His supporters yesterday challenged the constitutionality of the President's move in the Lahore High Court.

Surrounded by yes-men, the former prime minister convinced himself he was a populist leader. He gave away taxis to rickshaw drivers and acres of land to impoverished peasants. But yesterday the masses were conspicuously quiet over the news he had been kicked out.

In Rawalpindi, more than a thousand of his supporters crowded into a bazaar to hear Mr Sharif speak from the balcony of a decaying mansion. 'We shall fight this out in every nook and cranny of the country,' he said. Meanwhile, on the balcony, burly guards with sub-machine-guns shoved away gangs of favour-seekers trying to press themselves on to Mr Sharif before he left town.

So far, the President has chosen only three members of the caretaker cabinet that will govern Pakistan, under Mr Khan's meticulous eye, until new elections are held on 14 July. They are: the Prime Minister, Balkh Sher Mazari, a feudal landholder from Punjab; Farooq Leghari, who belongs to Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP); and Hamid Nasir Chatta, who until recently was one of Mr Sharif's own ministers.

It was Mr Chatta's defection that set off a chain of cabinet resignations in recent weeks, sapping Mr Sharif's government of its credibility. Mr Chatta's new posting is seen as a presidential reward for switching sides. Ms Bhutto will not join the interim government; instead she will be busy campaigning for this summer's elections.

Lawyers in Islamabad doubt that Mr Sharif's legal attempts to block the dismissal of his government will succeed. Pakistan's last despot, General Zia ul-Haq, added a constitutional amendment giving himself the authority to dissolve the elected body, the National Assembly.

The Pakistani army has often meddled in politics, but in this battle between the prime minister and the President, the generals remained solidly behind Mr Khan, 78, a reclusive career bureaucrat with a reputation for honesty and stubbornness.

Also, the Clinton administration is weighing whether to put Pakistan on its list of terrorist countries because of its clandestine nuclear weapons programme and its support for Indian separatist groups in Kashmir and Punjab. Yet another military revolt in Islamabad would kill off chances of restoring good relations with the United States, once its chief ally.

At first, Mr Khan treated Mr Sharif like a favourite son. For the President, and also for the army, Mr Sharif offered a pliable alternative to the haughty Ms Bhutto. He was a businessman, a good Muslim whose family spoke Punjabi at home instead of the Oxbridge cadences of the Bhuttos and others of Pakistan's landed gentry, and seemed to represent a new breed of conservative politicians who spoke for middle-class Pakistanis.

Having groomed Mr Sharif, the President dismissed Ms Bhutto's government in August 1990 on charges of corruption almost identically worded to those he would aim at Mr Sharif. Mr Sharif's Islamic coalition, the IJI, was elected by a majority amid infuriated cries from Ms Bhutto that the President had rigged the polls against her.

But it was not long before Mr Sharif, whose family grew to be one of the richest in the country during his tenure in politics, began to resent the President's manipulations. Their feud burst into the open after the mysterious death three months ago of General Asif Nawaz, the former armed forces' chief. Encouraged by the President, the General's widow last week accused Mr Sharif's two closest aides of poisoning her husband.

After General Nawaz's death, the prime minister moved to appoint a new army chief. But he was blocked by the President, who chose his own man, General Abdul Waheed, over more politically astute officers. General Waheed is too new at his job to be an obstacle to the President.

Thwarted, Mr Sharif next tried to clip the President's powers by doing away with the controversial amendment that lets him dissolve parliament. This challenge might have succeeded if Mr Sharif had had backing from Ms Bhutto, the opposition leader. He did not.

It was a grave miscalculation. Mr Sharif had harassed Ms Bhutto, locking her husband, Asif Zardari, in jail on corruption charges and arresting PPP militants, and her desire for revenge outweighed her democratic impulses to join Mr Sharif in weakening the President.

(Photographs omitted)

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