Pakistan’s political establishment is in for a bit of a shake-up, with the country’s Supreme Court allowing exiled former premier Nawaz Sharif to return home. A seven-member bench of the court delivered the ruling last Thursday, setting the stage for Mr Sharif and his family to come back to Pakistan and possibly run for Prime Minister in the polls expected to be held later this year. He joins another exiled former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, in preparing to return to Pakistani politics and contest parliamentary elections. Mr Sharif, who served two non-consecutive terms as PM, and is the leader of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2000 on charges of treason, hijacking and terrorism after General Pervez Musharraf staged a coup. The Musharraf regime subsequently agreed to commute his sentence from life in prison to exile in Saudi Arabia.
It’s not clear if and how Mr Sharif would face possible new legal challenges and even imprisonment when he does return. What is clear, however, is that this is the first time that an institution in Pakistan is working independently of the military in Islamabad. The court ruling obviously weakens embattled President Musharraf even more, eroding his once absolute hold on power. Public support for Gen. Musharraf is at an all-time low and he faces challenges from several quarters. When he seized power and jailed the democratically-elected PM, most Pakistanis didn’t seem to mind, as both Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif were unpopular due to their corrupt administrations. But in the eight years of his rule since then, political activity was all but stifled in Pakistan, which allowed several religious parties with extremist ideologies to fill the political vacuum.
In that sense, the apex court ruling is a positive step as it opens the doors for free and fair polls — probably the best bet for stemming Pakistan’s drift towards extremism. It’s another matter that both Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif return to active politics with a lot of old baggage, including charges of corruption, cronyism, and inefficiency. Talk about some things remaining the same, the more they change.