ISLAMABAD, (Agencies) – Exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the man President Pervez Musharraf deposed, is set to return to Pakistan within days, aides said on Friday, after a deal to end his exile in Saudi Arabia.
It was not immediately clear whether Sharif, whom Musharraf deposed in a bloodless 1999 coup, would get back before Nov. 26, the last date for filing election nominations and so be able to run for parliament. He was due to meet King Abdullah in Riyadh for a “farewell meeting” before flying to London, Sharif’s political base for the latter part of his exile, a Saudi government source said.
Musharraf, under intense criticism at home and abroad for imposing emergency rule three weeks ago, had agreed to Sharif’s return during discussions with King Abdullah, a leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League said.
Overnight the Commonwealth suspended Pakistan’s membership of the grouping of mostly former British colonies. The move underlined the pressure Musharraf has been under since invoking emergency powers to shore up his presidency. “Pakistan has got to end the state of emergency, General Musharraf has got to remove his uniform to fight elections,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told reporters on Friday at a Commonwealth summit in Kampala. “There has got to be freedom for the press and freedom for the judiciary and there’s got to be a release of all the political prisoners,” he added. “If that were to happen, then the suspension of Pakistan would be lifted.”
Western governments fear that stifling democracy could benefit Islamist militants threatening nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Politically isolated, Musharraf paid a surprise visit to Riyadh on Tuesday, sparking speculation that he was reaching out to his old foe Sharif, who was deported after he tried to return from exile in September, ahead of a Jan. 8 general election. “God willing, he will return in a few days,” said Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, chairman of the Nawaz League as Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League is known.
The party was set to meet on Saturday to decide his return date, which was expected to be within four or five days, a party spokesman said.
Musharraf imposed a two-term limit on the prime ministership in 2002, which currently bars both Sharif and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from another stint.
Bhutto flew to Islamabad from the southern city of Karachi on Friday to meet her party leadership. She made no comment. Having spent eight years trying to marginalise Sharif, and having allowed Bhutto back last month, Musharraf appears to have admitted his failure to re-engineer Pakistan’s polity, sundered by the coup that ended a decade of chaotic civilian rule.
Musharraf co-opted the rump of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League after ousting him. Confusingly there are now two PMLs, although Sharif’s is usually referred to as the Nawaz League.
Aaj Television quoted Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of the ruling PML, as saying that the party was not scared that its former boss Sharif was coming back.
Hussain was probably putting on a brave face, as many of his party could flock to Sharif’s banner, given that Musharraf and his intelligence officials appeared to have done a deal.
News that Sharif would soon return, and talk that the emergency might soon be lifted, buoyed the Karachi stock market, which rose 1.4 percent. It has now clawed back much of the 6 percent it shed following the imposition of emergency rule on Nov.3. But many ordinary Pakistanis are despondent. “(Sharif’s) return will make no difference because no system is working here,” said Sehar Ali, a schoolteacher. A Supreme Court packed with government-friendly judges finally gave Musharraf satisfaction on Thursday, ruling that his Oct. 6 re-election by parliament had been valid.
Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum said Musharraf should be sworn in for a second five-year term as a civilian before Dec. 1.
Musharraf has already started to roll back the emergency, releasing some 5,000 opposition activists and lawyers rounded up after it was imposed. Private TV channel ARYone World resumed broadcasting on Friday after it was suspended along with a number of others amid stiff media curbs. However the crackdown continued in Karachi, where police used batons to break up protests by groups of opposition supporters. About 50 people were detained and several hurt, witnesses said.