Sunday, September 09, 2007

Nawaz Sharif's Popularity on the Rise

Pakistan's former leader to return home a hero
No longer exiled, Sharif threatens to ruin Musharraf's re-election plans
By KIM BARKER: Chicago Tribune; September 8, 2007

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — When a demoralized Nawaz Sharif fled his country seven years ago, he traded prison for exile and left behind a reputation as an allegedly corrupt, power-hungry megalomaniac while prime minister.

But on Monday, Sharif plans to return home a new man. He is now considered the country's face of democracy. He is more popular than any other politician, polls show. And he even has new hair, courtesy of a transplant.

More than anyone else, Sharif has the potential to ruin the re-election plans of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a U.S. ally in the war against terrorism who seized power from Sharif in a bloodless military coup in 1999 and later drove him into exile in Saudi Arabia, analysts said. That is if Musharraf's government does not find a way to prevent his return.

"What they can do is arrest him, but then he's a hero," said Samina Ahmed, the Pakistan project director for the International Crisis Group. "The man has a very simple message — he stands for democracy against military dictatorship. And that's very popular now."

If Sharif returns home from London, where he is now, he will set up a power struggle between three leaders who have dominated Pakistani politics for the past 29 years. He could jeopardize Musharraf's pending deal to share power with another one-time rival, Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister also in exile. And he could rally support among the opposition to contest Musharraf's publicly expressed plans to seek re-election.

Sharif's return also would bring tens of thousands of people to the streets — either to welcome the two-time premier as he drives from the airport near Islamabad to the eastern city of Lahore, his power base, or to protest any government action to impede him.

Two officials close to Musharraf — a spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, and the minister of railways, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed — said the government had not yet decided how to handle Sharif if he returns.

But the government wants to prevent the homecoming, just as Sharif tried to prevent the return of Musharraf in 1999 by refusing to give permission for the army chief's plane to land — the event that led to the Musharraf-led coup.

On Friday, the government reopened long-dormant corruption cases against Sharif. An anti-terrorism court in Lahore also ordered the arrest of Sharif's exiled younger brother, Shabaz, in a murder case. The brother also was expected to try to return home.

The Pakistani media has reported that the government is cleaning up Sharif's old jail cell. More than 70 activists with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N, were detained recently, and houses of leaders were raided.

"I had to run away," said Raja Ashfaq Sarwar, the party's general secretary in Punjab province, the party's stronghold. Musharraf repeatedly has said Sharif should remain in exile for 10 years under the 2000 deal that dismissed a life prison sentence against him, largely on charges of corruption and hijacking Musharraf's plane.

"It's plainly obvious to the world that there was an understanding," Qureshi said. "It's for him and his own morals really whether to stick to what he had said. One expects a man who's been the prime minister of a country twice to honor his word."

The stakes are high for everyone on Monday — Musharraf, Bhutto and Sharif.

Musharraf, whose alliance with the U.S. has hurt him at home, is facing the toughest challenges of his term in office. Since a botched attempt to get rid of the country's Supreme Court chief justice in March, his popularity has slipped, the opposition has rallied and the court has begun to assert itself.

It was the Supreme Court that decided last month that Sharif and his younger brother should be allowed to return home. And it will be the Supreme Court that could decide court challenges to Musharraf's continued rule and Sharif's ultimate fate if he returns.

Many analysts do not see how Musharraf can survive as both president and army chief.

"Whichever way he turns, he's not going to go very far," said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, a democracy-building group. "He's done many good things for the country that civilian leaders did not do. But I think he's overstayed his tenure, and that's why people are judging him unfairly now."

If Sharif flies home, he will steal the limelight from Bhutto and gain more credibility with the masses. Bhutto's popularity has slipped since she began discussing a deal with Musharraf, whom she long dismissed simply as a military dictator. If Sharif comes home before her, he'll win even more points.

"He's going to get here first, and it does matter," Ahmed said. "This is going to automatically have an impact on the elections, if in fact they are free and fair."

Also See: Pakistan braces for Sharif’s return, The Hindu
Exiled Pakistan Ex-PM Heads Home, BBC

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