Ex-Pakistan PM ‘most acceptable’ as Musharraf's successor
Straits Times
August 20, 2008
Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has emerged as the man to watch in his country’s politics after seeing off the army dictator who toppled him from power nine years ago.

President and retired general Pervez Musharraf resigned from his post on Monday (August 18), saying he wanted to avoid putting the strife-torn nation through a painful impeachment process even though he was confident of surviving it.

That process was initiated by the Pakistan Peoples Party-led (PPP) government after sustained pressure from Sharif, who was overthrown as premier by Musharraf in a 1999 coup.

The powerful politician is a landowner from the Punjab province who heads the second biggest party in the national assembly, the Pakistan Muslim League.

“At the moment, there is no political leader who is more acceptable to all Pakistanis than Mr Nawaz,” says political science professor Ishtiaq Ahmed of Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University.

“He has taken a principled stand on all the issues that matter to Pakistanis, whether on the restoration of the judiciary, a return to full democracy, or on fighting the war on terror his way, not as dictated by Washington.”

Sharif’s Punjab stronghold is the most populous of the four Pakistani provinces. It dominates Pakistan’s economy, bureaucracy and all-important military.

Indeed, Pakistan’s military-bureaucratic elite, known simply as the ‘establishment’, is far more comfortable with Sharif than with Asif Ali Zardari, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s widower and the chairman of the PPP.

One Islamabad insider says the government’s recent botched attempt to bring the Inter-Services Intelligence under civilian control has consolidated the establishment’s sentiment towards Sharif and suspicion about Zardari.

Sharif, who turns 59 this year, dramatically returned to Pakistan last November from exile in Saudi Arabia and London. He did so to be in step with his top political rival, Benazir Bhutto, who had earlier returned to Pakistan after brokering a deal with Musharraf.

Bundled out of Pakistan without being allowed to leave the airport at first, Sharif returned shortly afterwards, after Saudi Arabia interceded on his behalf.

After Bhutto’s murder in December, he became the politician with the biggest national appeal in Pakistan.

That much was evident when he campaigned for his party’s MPs in the elections. They won big in his native Punjab province though he himself was not a candidate and in spite of the sympathy wave for the PPP.

Pervez Rashid, a confidant of the Punjab politician, calls this rapid return to centre stage a ‘huge achievement’ for Sharif.

People are now waiting for the inevitable fallout with the Bhuttos.

Sharif had seemed to bury his longstanding rivalry with the Bhuttos of the Sindh province and patched up his differences with Zardari ahead of the poll. Rows over the reinstatement of high court judges sacked by the former president when he imposed emergency rule last November have divided the coalition and threatened to split it up for good.

The coalition first pledged to reinstate the judges in May but Sharif pulled his MPs out of the Cabinet after the PPP dragged its feet on the issue, particularly on the restoration of chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was fired by Musharraf over a year ago.

Zardari is worried that, if restored, the old bench may not recognise the indemnities from prosecution on corruption charges that Musharraf had given the Bhutto clan.

But the matter is of critical importance to Sharif.

As he told reporters when he left yesterday (August 19) for talks with Zardari and Bhutto political heir Bilawal Bhutto on the judges’ issue: “It is an issue as important as Musharraf’s resignation.”

But as of late yesterday, the parties were deadlocked on the judges issue and had announced no decisions on the next president or Musharraf’s future.

Senate chairman Mohammedmian Soomro, a one-time ally of Musharraf, became acting president on Monday and will hold the office until the election of a new head of state in 30 days.

Officials say the coalition is considering a candidate from one of Pakistan’s smaller provinces.

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