Sharif Returns to Pakistan

On his second attempt in two and a half months, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finally made it home from exile on Sunday. Last September Pakistani security forces arrested him on arrival at Islamabad's airport and bundled him onto a waiting jet that flew him back to Saudi Arabia where he had spent most of his seven years in exile after President Pervez Musharraf overthrew him in a bloodless coup in 1999. This time Sharif emerged triumphant through the sliding glass doors from the Lahore international airport's customs area and was swept up in the enthusiastic embrace of hundreds of his jubilant supporters who shouted "Nawaz Sharif Prime Minister" and "The Lion has returned." They boosted Sharif onto their shoulders from where he climbed onto a rental car counter. Speaking animatedly into TV microphones, his thinning hair awry, and frequently wiping his sweaty brow with a handkerchief, he said his return was not part of any backroom, political deal with Musharraf, and that he had come back "to rid the country of dictatorship and to restore democracy."

If he means what he says, he has set himself a tall task. Despite the hundreds of people who greeted him at the airport, and the several thousand more who lined the road outside the airport, Sharif's return was subdued compared to the tumultuous reception of tens of thousands that received the country's other exiled prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, when she returned to Karachi from exile in October. Perhaps the presence Sunday of thousands of Pakistani anti-riot police who manned security barricades both inside and outside the airport dissuaded many Sharif loyalists from venturing out to greet him. Paid TV advertisements had aired today urging his followers to come out in large numbers. But the big crowds never materialized.

Even so, the relatively small turnout perhaps belies his true political clout that is believed to be considerable, especially in his home province of Punjab, of which Lahore is the capital, the country's most populous and powerful state. "He's going to revolutionize Pakistani politics," says one of his fervent supporters, Syed Ataul Hassan.

That may be a stretch but Sharif's return does seem to represent a distinct threat to Musharraf and his political loyalists who have had a stranglehold on power for the past eight years. Musharraf's political machine, the Pakistan Muslim League, was largely cobbled together by the powerful military's intelligence agencies from defectors from Sharif's party of the same name. So not surprisingly, there is well-founded talk that some of the turncoats may be keen on hooking up with their former boss again. A main reason for that shift is that popular sentiment is running strongly against Musharraf and his nearly one-month old emergency--and in favor of Sharif's uncompromising stance against the president and his martial law-like regulations. Under the emergency Musharraf suspended the constitution, dismissed independent-minded judges who seemed on the verge of ruling him ineligible for a second five-year term, and detained thousands of judges, lawyers, opposition leaders, and human rights and political activists. Even though most detainees have recently been released--the top judges remain under house arrest--few Pakistanis are happy with the suspension of their rights, particularly since Musharraf has called a general election for Jan. 8.

Most of Sharif's appeal seems to come from his defiance toward, and his apparent refusal to cut a political deal with, Musharraf. "We hope that he doesn't make General Musharraf his godfather," says one Sharif supporter at the airport. "He needs to continue firmly opposing him." Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan scot-free after she negotiated a back-channel pact with the president that gave her a blanket amnesty from a host of corruption charges, has seen her popularity eroded as a result. Recent polls have shown that the defiant Sharif's popularity rating is double that of Musharraf's and Bhutto's. Sharif played to that audience Sunday when he told the BBC that he had struck no political deal with the president to pave the way for his return. "We have a different agenda to [Musharraf's] agenda," he said.

Last week Musharraf flew to Saudi Arabia apparently in an effort to convince King Abdullah not to allow Sharif to return to Pakistan before the election and, if he failed, to perhaps make a political pact of sorts with Sharif. Musharraf released Sharif from a Pakistani prison in 2000 in a deal brokered by the Saudis. Under the purported arrangement Sharif was to stay in exile in Saudi Arabia for 10 years and refrain from playing any role in Pakistani politics. When Sharif tried to return prematurely last September, Musharraf worked with the Saudis to force him back into exile. But since Bhutto's return the Saudis reevaluated their position and decided it was only fair for Sharif, who is seen as a friend, to come back as well. Abdullah apparently didn't listen to Musharraf's entreaties and gave Sharif the green light to leave the kingdom. Abdullah even supplied Sharif with one of the royal family's jets to fly him, his wife and his younger brother Shahbaz to Lahore.

While Sharif could publicly claim that he had returned without compromising with Musharraf, some Pakistanis have their doubts. They point to the fact that Musharraf's head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, stayed behind in Saudi Arabia after Musharraf had left, apparently to meet with Abdullah and Sharif. These Pakistanis believe Sharif may have agreed to tone down his anti-Musharraf rhetoric and play a more constructive and cooperative political game if he were allowed to return.

Sharif's loyalists reject that view. "We don't believe there's any kind of deal," says Anusha Rahman Khan, who heads a pro-Nawaz group of women lawyers. "The only understanding he may have struck was that he could land safely."

Some Pakistanis even argue that Musharraf sees a political value in Sharif's return in that it most likely will further undercut Bhutto's position and deepen the already wide divide among the opposition parties. A quarrel is already breaking out over whether or not to participate in the elections. So far Bhutto seems leaning toward having her Pakistan People's Party run in the upcoming polls, while Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, and the tiny party of former cricket star Imran Khan, among others, have said they are leaning toward boycotting the vote which Musharraf says most likely will be held under emergency regulations without strong constitutional guarantees.

One of the country's most charismatic, opposition lawyers, Aitzaz Ahsan, a PPP stalwart, was released from prison on Saturday, perhaps temporarily, so he could register as a candidate in the upcoming election. But as he filed his nomination papers Sunday in a stuffy Lahore courtroom, he said he did not think the vote could be free and fair if held under the emergency. "It's next to impossible to hold an election under an emergency," he said, wearing a floral wreath around his neck, which was placed there by his supporters. "Martial law and elections are an oxymoron." He added that he hoped all the opposition parties would be able to decide to take a united stand as to whether they should run or boycott the polls. Indeed opposition unity is on the minds of many Pakistanis. "We want the opposition politicians to make an alliance to end Musharraf's dictatorship," says Rafaqat Khan, a Lahore lawyer and Ahsan supporter.

But opposition unity, while widely hoped for, is unlikely to be achieved. Musharraf is counting on it. As long as the opposition stays disunited, Musharraf and his political allies can probably continue clinging to power.