Three's a crowd with Sharif back in Pakistan
By Simon Cameron-Moore - Analysis
Nov 26, Reuters
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - There was a time when Pakistan wasn't big enough for the three of them.
Nawaz Sharif came back on Sunday, Benazir Bhutto came back last month, and in between, President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule, triggering an avalanche of criticism at home and from Western allies.
General Musharraf has spent most of the eight years since he seized power in a coup trying to keep former prime ministers Bhutto and Sharif out.
But his attempt to re-engineer a polity sundered by the 1999 military takeover has ended in defeat.
"Politically he's always been in blunder-land," said Nasim Zehra, an independent analyst who nevertheless credits Musharraf with doing well on the economic and foreign policy fronts.
On November 3, Musharraf suspended the constitution, and sacked Supreme Court judges he thought were going to annul his October 6 re-election as president by an outgoing parliament.
Now the threat has passed and he will sworn in for a second five-year term later this week, after quitting as army chief.
How long he holds the presidency depends on whether polls called for January 8 return a hostile or a friendly parliament.
Once back as a civilian, Musharraf's support from the army will recede, and his chances of being overthrown will increase, analysts say.
Sharif, the prime minister he deposed in 1999, has far more to gain than Bhutto if Musharraf falls, which explains why he would like to see the ousted judges re-instated.
"Nawaz would probably be the sole beneficiary," said Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times and a leading political analyst.
"For him, coming back is the first step, second step is to get into parliament, third step is to try and overthrow Musharraf and the fourth step is to get back as prime minister."
While Sharif wants to reclaim his power base in Punjab, the richest of Pakistan's four provinces, Bhutto has a real shot at power if her party gets enough votes.
She can become "either prime minister or a very serious coalition partner with Musharraf", Sethi said.
ODD ONE OUT
Musharraf and Bhutto share common liberal outlooks, are regarded as pro-West and are seen as leaders who could form a bulwark against rising Islamist militancy threatening to destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The potential attraction for Bhutto is that Musharraf could protect her from conservatives in the army and establishment, although to retain credibility with her own constituency she should keep some distance from the unpopular president.
For years Musharraf denounced Sharif and Bhutto as corrupt, but he included Bhutto in an amnesty that allowed her to come home in October, while at the same time excluding Sharif from the order he issued in the interest of national reconciliation.
Both Bhutto and Musharraf are seen as prime assassination targets for al Qaeda-inspired militants but the more conservative Sharif is not. Sharif can appear pro-West but he has stayed close to the religious lobby.
"He mixes pragmatism in foreign policy with conservatism and illiberalism in domestic policy," said Sethi.
Opposition threats to boycott the poll to undermine its credibility are likely to come to naught so long as Musharraf revokes the emergency soon, analysts say. No party would want to leave the field open for another.
While the January vote is unlikely to be free and fair, analysts say, Musharraf cannot afford rigging on the scale of that in the 2002 election. Even U.S. patience with its ally against al Qaeda would be tested by flagrant vote manipulation.
Provided it is a straight vote, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML), a party put together by Musharraf's intelligence agencies after the coup, is expected to be the main loser, particularly after Sharif's return.
Support for Sharif and brother Shahbaz Sharif, who came back with him, is strong in Lahore, the political heart of Pakistan.
The Sharifs' return is a big setback for the Chaudhry family, who with Musharraf's patronage have ruled the roost in Punjab.
Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the president of the PML, and his cousin Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, considered a possible contender for the premiership, not only face defections from voters, but also from politicians who might see a better future under their old leader Sharif.
"Musharraf's standing on a bar of soap, he can easily slip," remarked a journalist from Waziristan, the remote tribal region where al Qaeda-backed militants are bleeding the Pakistan army, and harrying NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan.
(Editing by Roger Crabb)