Monday, November 26, 2007

Another Former Pakistani PM Returns Home From Exile

This time, it's Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by President General Pervez Musharraf in a bloodless 1999 coup and left the country for exile after being found guilty of corruption charges...just like Bhutto.

Sharif returned to Lahore Sunday and was greeted by hundreds of his supporters from his Pakistan Muslim League Party. The Musharraf government's story is that Sharif was allowed back into the country after reaching an "understanding" with them, something Sharif contradicted. Sharif said there was no such "understanding'. He was back, he told the crowd, "to save Pakistan and save democracy."

What this does,quite simply is to put another piece on the chess board.

Let's reiterate what the board looks like so far:

Musharraf, who's now presiding over a state of emergency that essentially amounts to martial law is saying that he plans to step down as head of the Pakistani army in the next few days, just before he's sworn in for a second term as president. He also says he plans to lift the state of emergency `soon'. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for early January but opposition parties, including Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, haven't said whether they're going to participate.

So we may end up with an `election' that isn't one if they don't..but my guess is that they will. It's a win-win for them either way. If one of them is victorious, they regain power. If they lose, they can always claim the vote was rigged.

There has been some talk about an alliance between Bhutto and Sharif, but I wouldn't expect that to go anywhere. Both of them are fairly egotistical and dislike each other, and they frankly have little consensus to join them and their followers together aside from the fact they dislike Musharraf and want power.

Sharif is a more conservative, more Islamist candidate while Bhutto likes to play to the center left a bit more, at least in rhetoric. While both of them have a following,especially given today's climate in Pakistan, both are also seen as corrupt and failed politicians and part of Pakistan's oligarchy by a great many Pakistanis.

It's notable that Sharif was allowed to return by the Musharraf matter what Sahrif says, he wouldn't have returned without certain assurances being made and risked arrest..just like Bhutto. This could very well have happened because Musharraf needs an ally to consolidate his rule, and is pitting Bhutto against Sharif to gain leverage and better terms with whomever he makes his ultimate deal with.

And of course, there's the wild card, the Islamists. Just as Hamas was able to appeal to the Palestinians on religious grounds and as an alternative to a corrupt, ineffectual Fatah, the Islamists can cover exactly the same political ground.And they already have de facto control over Waziristan and the NWFP, plus plenty of sympathizers in the rest of the country.

Expect them to make a serious effort to upset the whole board...and they just might end up succeeding.

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