ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 23 — Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to return to the country after nearly seven years in exile, a decision that remakes the nation’s political landscape and deals a major blow to President Pervez Musharraf as he struggles to maintain power.
Musharraf had fought hard to block the return of Sharif, a political enemy and the man he ousted in a 1999 military-led coup. Government lawyers argued in court that Sharif had agreed in 2000 to spend 10 years in exile in Saudi Arabia rather than serve the life sentence in prison imposed on him when Musharraf took over.
But the court ruled Thursday that the exile agreement was not legally binding and that Sharif has “an inalienable right to enter and remain in the country as a citizen of Pakistan.”
Sharif is now poised to become Musharraf’s main political adversary as the president, who also heads the army, attempts to secure a new term this fall. Sharif has said he will try to block the general’s plans, and he may have an ally in Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. Musharraf suspended Chaudhry in the spring, and since his reinstatement last month, the judge has issued a string of aggressive rulings that have eaten away at Musharraf’s authority.
Sharif on Thursday predicted that Musharraf was on his way out. “Democracy has won. Dictatorship has lost,” Sharif told reporters at a news conference in London. Sharif, 57, said he and his brother would be returning to Pakistan “as soon as we can,” and aides said it would probably happen within the next few weeks.
At the courthouse in Islamabad, the decision set off an exuberant celebration, with hundreds of supporters chanting “Go, Musharraf, go!” and jumping on top of honking cars to cheer a ruling many interpreted as an act of defiance against the military-led government.
“This is a historic moment in the history of Pakistan. The entire country should be happy,” said Tauqir Saulat, a 55-year-old financial consultant who waved a Sharif placard. “Pakistan doesn’t belong only to Musharraf. It’s a country of more than 160 million people. But the Pakistani army has denied them their basic rights — until today.”
Despite the court’s ruling, Sharif’s return will be risky. Government lawyers indicated Thursday that they intend to try to enforce Sharif’s life sentence, which could make it all but impossible for him to participate in politics.
The sentence stems from a conviction on hijacking and terrorism charges relating to Sharif’s decision in 1999 not to allow Musharraf’s plane to land on Pakistani soil. Sharif, who was trying to fire Musharraf as his army chief, nearly caused the plane to crash. The act helped trigger the coup that brought Musharraf to power.
With Thursday’s ruling, Musharraf must allow Sharif’s plane to land when the former prime minister arrives. Even so, Sharif may be arrested before he sets foot outside the airport. Sharif said he is prepared for that possibility. “I’m not afraid of anything,” he said Thursday.
Arresting Sharif would also carry political risk for Musharraf, because it could incite Sharif’s supporters to take to the streets.
Sharif, who served two terms as prime minister in the 1990s, is in many ways an unlikely hero for the growing democratic movement in Pakistan. The pudgy, balding politician — he is rumored to have recently received hair transplants — is not especially charismatic, and his record in office included suppression of the press, accusations of rampant corruption and manipulation of the laws to consolidate power. At one point, his supporters attacked the Supreme Court building to show their displeasure with its rulings. Until recently, most Pakistanis seemed to have had enough of Sharif.
But with Musharraf faltering and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto publicly considering a deal that would allow her to return from exile and share power with the general, Sharif has cast himself as the only credible national leader who offers a clean break with the past eight years of military rule.
A recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. government-funded nonprofit that promotes democracy, showed Sharif’s faction of the center-right Pakistan Muslim League gaining in popularity. That was especially true in Punjab province, the nation’s largest and a traditional Musharraf stronghold.
Musharraf’s term expires in October, and he has said he intends to win another five years in office from the current parliament, whose National Assembly was elected in a 2002 vote that was marred by irregularities. The assembly’s term also expires in the fall.
Sharif has questioned the constitutionality of Musharraf’s plan, and the matter is likely to end up in the Supreme Court. Even if Musharraf prevails, his election is far from certain. Political analysts say momentum is increasingly against him, which could prompt Bhutto to rethink a power-sharing deal. Also, many of Musharraf’s supporters in Parliament are former Sharif backers.
“Musharraf really wants to hold on to power, but it’s looking increasingly difficult for him to do so,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
If his reelection falls into serious doubt, Musharraf could opt for emergency rule, which would allow him to postpone elections and curb civil liberties. He nearly took that step this month but was persuaded by the United States and a contingent of advisers to back down.
In a sign of just how precarious the political situation has become, a government lawyer asserted during Thursday’s hearing that the country was already under emergency rule, and had been since a 1998 move by Sharif’s government that the lawyer insisted had never been overturned. Chaudhry, looking anxious, asked Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum whether that was true. Qayyum said he would need to look into it.
After a brief recess, Qayyum told the court that he had heard from “the highest level of the government” and that, for the moment, the country was not under any emergency.