August 23, 2007 / 1:32 PM / 12 years ago

Sharif's shadow looms over Pakistan's Musharraf

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistan Supreme Court decision on Thursday to allow former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to return from exile will reinforce growing doubts over President Pervez Musharraf’s grip on power.

Exiled former prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif speaks to reporters in London, July 8, 2007. Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Sharif can return home after seven years in exile, the chief of the Supreme Court said. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

General Musharraf overthrew Sharif eight years ago, and co-opted the rump of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League to form his own political base.

The timing for a return by Sharif, and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, could hardly be more awkward for Musharraf, who, with his popularity plunging, is expected to seek re-election from the national and provincial assemblies between mid-September and mid-October and hold parliamentary elections within months.

Just last week, Sharif told a news channel NDTV he regarded Musharraf as “a drowning man” with no options left.

Sharif, 57, was prime minister for two terms in the 1990s before his ouster in 1999, and he still commands popularity in the politically crucial province of Punjab.

After the coup, Sharif was convicted for graft and given a life sentence for hijacking.

The hijacking charge related to Sharif’s refusal to allow landing rights to a passenger jet bringing army chief Musharraf back from Sri Lanka, despite it being desperately short of fuel. The army quickly launched a coup to save its chief.

Sharif was allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia in 2000, but later relocated to London, from where he sought to mobilise opposition against Musharraf.

He forged an Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy with arch rival Benazir Bhutto, another two-time prime minister living in exile, and in 2006 the two leaders of Pakistan’s largest mainstream parties signed a Charter of Democracy.

But Bhutto and Sharif differed over the strategy for dealing with Pakistan’s military leader.

Bhutto decided it was better to negotiate with Musharraf, who at least shares similar progressive moderate leanings, to enable a transition to democracy.

But Sharif has refused to have any dealings with the general.

Whether or not she reaches any power sharing deal with Musharraf, Bhutto also plans to return to campaign for the parliamentary elections.

At odds with Bhutto once again, Sharif last month aligned his PML with mostly conservative, religious parties to form the All Parties Democratic Movement.

PATCHY RECORD

Born into a Kashmiri family of industrialists on Dec. 15, 1949, in Lahore, Sharif took a law degree and worked in the family business before turning to politics in the PML.

Groomed by a military dictator and supported by an army-backed establishment, Sharif was picked as finance minister of Punjab in 1981, and became its chief minister in 1985.

In 1990, the portly, balding Sharif became prime minister for the first time, after Bhutto was sacked.

As the first industrialist to rule Pakistan, Sharif tried to reverse socialist policies and open up the economy. Opposition parties accused him of selling state firms cheaply to friends.

His liberal economics did not extend to social policies. In 1991, he was embroiled in controversy after trying to make Islamic sharia law the supreme law of Pakistan.

In 1993, he ran afoul of the military for the first time and was forced to resign amid charges of nepotism and corruption.

But Bhutto was no more successful on her second try as prime minister and Sharif was back in power by 1996.

This time, strengthened by an election win in 1997, he went about tightening his grip on power. A row with the judiciary led to the removal of the head of the Supreme court.

President Farooq Leghari resigned after another battle. Sharif followed up by amending the constitution to eliminate the president’s power to remove a prime minister - the very power Leghari had used to oust Bhutto.

But political and economic problems mounted.

Nuclear tests in 1998 established Pakistan as a nuclear power, but resulted in international isolation.

A deteriorating relationship with Musharraf, who Sharif had appointed army chief, became unsalvageable after a border conflict with India in 1999, months before the October 12 coup.

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