Sunday, November 25, 2007

Nawaz Sharif Returns to Pakistan

Ex-Premier of Pakistan Returns Home
By CARLOTTA GALL; New York Times, November 25, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov. 25 — Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister, arrived home from exile to a tumultuous welcome at Lahore airport on Sunday evening. Hundreds of supporters whistled and cheered, hoisting him and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif on their shoulders through ranks of wary riot police.

“I have come to save this country,” he said standing on top of a radio cab desk in the arrivals hall. “I have come to fulfill the responsibility that is given me,” he told the crowd. But few could hear him, so loud was the chanting and cheering from supporters. “Long live! Long live! Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif!” they shouted.

The bitterest rival of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Mr. Sharif, 57, was returning eight years after his government was overthrown by the general, and he was thrown in prison and later sent into exile.

His attempt to return to the country in September was met with a huge police crackdown and he was immediately deported on the orders of General Musharraf, who has repeatedly said he would not allow Mr. Sharif back to contest parliamentary elections.

Yet in a sign of the rapidly changing political environment in Pakistan, and after Saudi Arabia, which has hosted Mr. Sharif for much of the last seven years, interceded on his behalf, General Musharraf relented this week and agreed to allow him and his brother to return. A heavy police deployment tried to prevent a large crowd forming at the airport and along the route into town, but it did not try to restrain Mr. Sharif or break up the gathering of his supporters. Police vehicles provided him with an escort into the city of Lahore.

Mr. Sharif is a rich industrialist from Lahore who gained enormous national popularity as prime minister when he conducted Pakistan’s first nuclear explosions in 1998. His return, with barely one day left for candidates to file their nomination papers for parliamentary elections, is likely to change the political scene overnight.

He represents the most formidable challenge to General Musharraf’s remaining in power as president for another five-year term, since unlike Benazir Bhutto, the other former prime minister and opposition leader, Mr. Sharif has publicly ruled out doing any deal with the general and has called for his removal from power.

His unimpeded return suggested that General Musharraf and his ruling party, a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, is resigned to his political comeback. The faction that has backed General Musharraf for the last five years is likely to suffer the most from Mr. Sharif’s return, and politicians are already predicting defections from one faction to another.

In his first words to his supporters on Sunday, he reiterated that he had not done any deal to return and put an end to the politics of back-room deals. “My deal is with you people, my heart says that there will be a change and the poor will get employment,” he said.

His return from Saudi Arabia was negotiated in the last few days when General Musharraf made a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia, where Mr. Sharif has been living since his deportation in September. The Pakistani leader had asked the Saudi leader, King Abdullah, to keep Mr. Sharif in exile until after the elections, but the Saudi leader made it clear that he no longer wanted to be embroiled in taking side in Pakistan’s politics, according to politicians close to the government.

His party and an alliance of opposition parties have called for a boycott of the parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8, unless the de facto martial law that General Musharraf imposed three weeks ago is lifted within days.

Nevertheless, party members said they had instructions to go ahead and file their nomination papers for seats in the provincial and national assemblies. A final decision on whether to boycott would be made later, officials said.

Even with de facto martial law in force, with restrictions on the news media and political parties, including the right to assembly, opposition parties are divided over whether to boycott the elections. Ms. Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, filed her nomination papers on Sunday in her home city of Karachi. Although the party has not made a final decision on a boycott, they are expected to contest the elections, rather than risk having no representation in the new assemblies. If the Pakistan Peoples Party, which is probably the largest political party in the country, contests the elections, Mr. Sharif’s call for an opposition boycott would founder.

Officials of Mr. Sharif’s party, also a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, said that hundreds of party workers had been arrested overnight to prevent a large crowd gathering to greet him. But nevertheless thousands of supporters in minibuses and trucks, on motorbikes and bicycles, filled the road outside the airport, many pressing forward to touch his white sport utility vehicle and catch a glimpse of him and his brother inside.

Mr. Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, is a politician in his own right: he used to be chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and he was also deported when he tried to return to the country in 2004.

Yet it was with the evident cooperation of the police and the provincial authorities, that Mr. Sharif transferred into a custom-built open-topped campaign truck, emblazoned with huge posters of himself and his brother, and spoke to several thousand supporters at a large intersection some five kilometers from the airport in to town.

“For eight years I was away from you and you were away from me but I resided in your hearts and you were in my heart. I can see the proof of it in front of me right now,” he told them, speaking into a microphone from the top of the bus. “My heart tells me that, God willing, change is inevitable,” he said.

Mr. Sharif is likely to take a strong stand against any compromise with the general, playing on the growing frustrations of the public with his military regime. “These politicians who make deals who bow their heads in front of a dictator we have to defeat them,” he told his supporters.

Many of the supporters gathered at the airport included bankers, factory owners, and students, said they were tried and frustrated after eight years of military rule. Gerneral Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule three weeks ago to secure his own election to another five-year term was a final embarrassment, they said.

Also See:
Pakistan: A new Sharif in town: Christian Science Monitor
Nawaz Sharif Returns to Pakistan: Telegraph

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