Will former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s return to the country prove to be a lightning rod for Opposition parties, or is it all part of an elaborate script written by President Pervez Musharraf? The answer to this question could well determine Pakistan’s political future. Mr Sharif, accompanied by his brother Shabaz Sharif and their families, arrived in Lahore on Sunday to a rousing welcome from supporters. The fact that he returned barely a day before the deadline to register for elections scheduled for January points to two possibilities.
One, this was a last ditch attempt for him to rejoin the political process after being in the wilderness for close to eight years. After all, there was no known reason for Mr Musharraf not to prevent Mr Sharif’s second homecoming, the way he was bundled off to Saudi Arabia the last time he tried to enter the country. Unless, of course, the general intends to remind Mr Sharif of the life imprisonment awarded to him before he went into exile in 2000. To recall: Mr Sharif was given the prison term in 1999 after being convicted on charges of corruption and trying to turn back an aircraft carrying then Army Chief General Musharraf from a foreign trip. The General subsequently turned the tables on Mr Sharif by radioing his corps commanders and carrying out a bloodless coup.
So a second — and more plausible — likelihood is that Mr Musharraf actually prefers to have Mr Sharif back on the political scene to counterbalance the popularity of Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party. This not only gives more legitimacy to the elections, but also gives an option for the besieged general to discredit Mr Sharif by highlighting his known links with Islamist parties. Facing challenges from the judiciary, the media, civil society and Islamist militants, President Musharraf obviously fears that once he gives up his uniform and steps into civvies — as he has announced — his grip on power would become even more tenuous. It is sad but true that upon such jitters depend the fate of a country struggling in the quicksand of political instability and extremist violence.