Sharif Throws Down the Gauntlet

Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was operating on very little sleep, he said, as he opened his first press conference on his home turf since going into exile seven years ago. He sounded calm and collected—but also very defiant toward Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who had reluctantly acceded to Saudi Arabia's request that Sharif be allowed to return to Pakistan yesterday. Sharif said that the prospects for national reconciliation—and his party's participation in the Jan. 8 general election called by Musharraf, the man who overthrew him in a bloodless coup in 1999—depended on Musharraf's lifting the state of emergency that he imposed on Nov. 3, and on the Pakistani president's willingness to restore the cashiered Supreme Court and other senior judges to the bench. "All the steps taken by Mr. Musharraf have to be rolled back to the position before the Nov. 3 proclamation of the emergency," Sharif said.

Musharraf, who is expected to resign his army command on Wednesday, will not heed Sharif's ultimatums. He couldn't. Any move to restore the feisty, independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry—and the six other justices who lost their jobs under the emergency decree (they are still under house arrest)—would imperil Musharraf's presidency. Nearly every Pakistani believes that Musharraf declared the draconian emergency measures expressly to oust the justices—who were poised to declare his re-election to a second five-year term unconstitutional. Last week their more pliable pro-Musharraf replacements ruled that the president's re-election was legal. As a result Musharraf will take the oath of office for a new term this coming Thursday, the day after he resigns his army commission—the main source of his political strength. Clearly, there seems to be little room for compromise between Sharif, who will turn 58 next month, and the man whom he appointed chief of army staff in 1998.

In his press conference, held at a Lahore house that was converted into a senior citizens' home by the government during his exile, Sharif emphasized that he would not be "a candidate for prime ministership under Pervez Musharraf"—all but ruling out any cooperation with the president. "I'm not looking for any office," he said somewhat disingenuously, sitting on a couch next to his younger brother Shahbaz, 57, a former chief minister of the populous Punjab province, the Sharifs' home base. "I'm looking to rid my country of the menace of dictatorship."

He did raise a tiny olive branch, saying he was "for national reconciliation." He said he had sent out such signals to Musharraf early in September, just before he launched his abortive attempt to return to Pakistan. When he arrived in Islamabad on Sept. 10 he was immediately arrested and deported back to Saudi Arabia, where he had spent most of his exile. He and his political allies, he said, would contest the upcoming elections only "if the government provides an even playing field and accepts these demands, which are in the larger interests of the country." Since Musharraf is not going to restore the pre-Nov. 3 Supreme Court and probably won't lift the emergency before the January balloting, it would seem unlikely at best that Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League faction and their political allies in the small All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) will participate.

But Sharif hedged his bets just in case, filing his nomination papers in a Lahore district court immediately after the press conference ended. His supporters showered him with rose petals, shouting, "Nawaz Sharif, prime minister!" At about the same time another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party, was filing her own nomination papers for the election in her hometown of Larkhana. Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan from eight years in exile last October under a deal that she secretly worked out with Musharraf that gives her amnesty from a slew of corruption charges, seems likely to contest the election along with members of her party. "We are concerned that elections will be rigged, but we don't want to leave the arena or the field empty," she said on Monday.

If Bhutto and her large, well-organized party do mount a campaign, it will be difficult for Sharif and his allies to boycott the polls; he would risk being left out in the cold. Indeed, without fairly strong opposition unity on the election and other issues, Musharraf is likely to continue ruling Pakistan largely unchallenged. As a result, Sharif has been trying to persuade Bhutto to see things his way, without much evident success thus far. He said on Monday that he had been in phone contact with her for the past "10 to 15 days" from Saudi Arabia. They differed, he said, over two important points. While she said she supported an "independent" judiciary, he responded that "'independent' was too vague a word," Sharif told the press. "The restoration of the judges is a must and a prerequisite for holding free and fair elections," he said. "In a country where you have a puppet judiciary and a handpicked and subservient election commissioner," he asked, "how can you think of holding free and fair elections?" Bhutto's position on restoring the court remains unclear.

The two former prime ministers also differed over boycotting the polls. "[Mrs.] Bhutto wanted some time to decide about the boycott issue," Sharif said. He didn't mind giving her some more time. Meanwhile, he has invited her, or at least a PPP representative, to a meeting this Thursday with his small APDM opposition alliance, to be held at his farm outside Lahore. Bhutto is unlikely to attend.

Sharif also took strong exception to the strategy, pursued by Musharraf with backing from U.S. President George Bush, for fighting the so-called war on terror in Pakistan. "I think this country needs to evolve a different kind of strategy that is supported by the people of Pakistan," Sharif said. He was referring to the many polls showing that a majority of Pakistanis feel that the country's security force's war against terrorism is largely an American war—and one that Pakistan should not be fighting. He hinted that the ongoing fighting in the tribal areas and in the neighboring Swat Valley could "turn this area into another Iraq." Sharif said he favored more negotiations with the insurgents. "Maybe many of these forces are ready to sit across the table," he said—while stressing that he is "against all forms of terrorism."

Sharif did put in a good word for Washington, however. "For the first time the U.S. is projecting an image of going along with the people of Pakistan rather than one individual," he said, referring to Musharraf. But Sharif had another request for the Americans—the same one he had for Bhutto. "The U.S. must clearly say that the judges [who were on the bench on Nov. 3] must be restored," he said. "This is the key issue."