President Pervez Musharraf's meticulously managed political stage
was jolted this week by the news that he may face challenges to his
power from not one, but two, of Pakistan's exiled former prime
The Supreme Court ruled that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif -
whom General Musharraf ousted from power in a 1999 military coup -
is free to return to the country, adding to the political challenge
posed by another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who
willingly left Pakistan after Musharraf's coup. Musharraf reacted by
immediately sending an envoy to London to push along a sputtering
and stalling political deal with the two former leaders.
The London meeting may indicate that the Pakistani president,
faced with two formidable former prime ministers as opponents, a
newly emboldened judiciary, and hostile public opinion polls, may be
ready to cede some of the political space that he has dominated by
force and manipulation for nearly eight years.
So far, Musharraf's moves toward sharing power have been
tentative. But this week's decision amplifies the political pressure
on Musharraf to compromise with one or both of Pakistan's former
leaders and to eventually restore democracy.
"After this decision, Musharraf must be tempted to forget about
'accountability' and focus on political survival," says Rasul Baksh
Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of
Musharraf's most likely survival hatch, analysts say, is to
cooperate with Bhutto, with whom Musharraf has been negotiating for
months. But while Musharraf has preferred dealing with the more
flexible Bhutto thus far any power equation that he engineers from
now on is likely to include Sharif, a political heavyweight from the
crucial Punjab region - Pakistan's largest province.
"If the president isn't able to rope in Benazir now, he could be
facing a situation worse than ever before," says Hassan Askari
Rizvi, a former professor of Pakistan studies at Columbia
University. The new political equation, Mr. Rizvi says, has pushed
Musharraf further into a corner where he may be desperate to reach a
"You can't even completely rule out a renewal of the alliance
between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif," Rizvi says, referring to
the short-lived "Charter of Democracy" that the two leaders signed
in opposition to Musharraf's rule last year.
Many of Sharif's old party members who now support the president,
observers say, may be emboldened to defect when the former premier
returns. Cracks have already begun to appear in the ruling coalition
government that supports Musharraf. One cabinet minister resigned
this week, citing the president's reluctance to rule as a civilian.
The legal decision allowing for Sharif's return, analysts say,
also ratchets up the judiciary's pressure on Musharraf to implement
democracy: With the Supreme Court showing unabashed defiance, it now
seems increasingly unlikely that the military leader will be able to
hold on to his dual role as chief of Army and president.
"Nawaz Sharif's entrance will no doubt create a big stir," says
Mr. Rais. If a free and fair election were held in Pakistan today,
he says, "Sharif would certainly come out on top."
Sharif, who has lived in Saudi Arabia since 1999, appeared on
private television channels over the weekend - his once bald head
now hidden beneath a wispy mop of new, grafted hair - and
triumphantly declared that he will fly back to Pakistan before the
holy month of Ramadan begins in September. …