Ex-Premier's Return to Pakistan Ends Quickly

Nawaz Sharif, the exiled former prime minister of Pakistan, was deported to Saudi Arabia just hours after arriving in Islamabad. Sharif had returned to Pakistan in the last week to challenge President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in elections.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

And I'm Robert Smith.

In Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf is grappling with another political crisis. Yesterday he had former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif deported after arriving in Pakistan. Sharif was returning to the country to challenge the president in elections. Today supporters of the former prime minister were in court challenging the decision, saying the action was illegal.

Here with more is NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad.

Now, some newspapers there are already calling this disgusting and shameful - this deportation of a political rival. But how widespread is that reaction?

PHILIP REEVES: Well, there was an intense media and is an intense media debate going on about it. But on the streets, actually it's been surprisingly quiet so far. There's been little reaction, not even in Punjab, which is the country's most populous province, but more importantly it's the stronghold of Sharif and his family.

One reason for this, of course, is the leadership of Sharif's party is in jail. They were rounded out before Sharif's arrival and they were detained and they still are detained, so they weren't able to organize. And those who were left yesterday, who hoped to come out onto the streets to show their support for Sharif, weren't able to get to - to gather together because the security operation was so immense on the day.

SMITH: Well, could this drama of returning and then being booted out again, could this have been considered a shrewd political move to discredit the president?

REEVES: Well, from Musharraf's point of view, it did get rid of someone who was going to present a problem for him. Sharif intended to drive through the country from Islamabad to Lahaur, his home city, in a convoy. This would have attracted enormous media attention. He would have been met by crowds in all likelihood of considerable size. He would have been making speeches. He would have gone on to the airwaves of Pakistan's proliferating TV media. And that would have been something that Musharraf, who is in a weak position at the moment, would have found difficult. But he has another problem and that's the Supreme Court.

Sharif and his supporters are going to go to - have gone, in fact, today to the Supreme Court to petition the court over the deportation of Sharif. They say that it's illegal because the Supreme Court ruled only last month that Sharif has a right to return and that the government shouldn't obstruct him.

SMITH: So he's getting rid of his rival. Does that make Musharraf more popular?

REEVES: I think the fact that he has done something which is contrary to, at least on the face of it, contrary to what the Supreme Court has ruled, is something which does not play well with Pakistanis at the moment because they now see that court as a pillar of clean justice, which they haven't had in this country since, really, the inception of the nation 60 years ago. So I think Musharraf loses more points on that front.

The government's argument is that Sharif went of his own accord into exile because he was given an alternative of going back to Saudi Arabia or facing charges of corruption.

But people, you know, they're fed up with Musharraf. They're fed up with the army, which has tentacles and everything from commerce to business. There is a strong element that now wants democracy. And they've been angered, particularly by Musharraf's attempts in March to kick out the chief justice of the country. And of course, one other issue - support for the U.S. That's going down very badly with Pakistanis and they identify that, of course, with Musharraf.

SMITH: So there is one other character waiting in the wings? Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been negotiating a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. Where does this leave her?

REEVES: Well, Bhutto says she's going to go ahead with those negotiations. There are many obstacles that have to be negotiated between them. From Bhutto's point of view, it means that Sharif is out of the picture for now, and that, I think, she will see as advantageous. But there are big issues here - she wants Musharraf to give up his job as army chief of staff, which has been combined with that of the presidency, which people opposed to Musharraf argue is illegal. And she also wants corruption charges against her dropped. That last issue is one which is regarded as crucial by her supporters.

SMITH: NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad, Pakistan. Thanks.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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