Sharif Leads Branch of Musharraf Opposition Sharif, who returned to Pakistan this week, joins former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in a triangular power struggle with Pakistan's military dictator, President Pervez Musharraf.
NPR logo Sharif Leads Branch of Musharraf Opposition

Sharif Leads Branch of Musharraf Opposition

Before returning to Pakistan this week, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had been in exile since 1999, when Musharraf ousted him in a bloodless military coup. Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

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Former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned to the country with hopes of reigniting her followers. Read a profile of Bhutto.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf is struggling to retain power. Read a profile of the country's leader.

With the words "I have come to save this country," former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan to a tumultuous welcome from his supporters.

Sharif joins former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as a point of opposition in a triangular power struggle with Pakistan's military dictator, President Pervez Musharraf.

Just three months ago, Musharraf had the power to turn Sharif away, despite a Pakistani Supreme Court ruling that upheld Sharif's right to return from exile in Saudi Arabia. The court pointed out that Pakistan's constitution has no provision for exiling citizens.

In early September, Sharif boarded a flight to Pakistan for what he evidently thought would be a triumphal return. He got no farther than the Lahore Airport, where Musharraf had him detained on long-standing corruption charges. Within hours, Sharif was deported, and he and his entourage were on a plane to Saudi Arabia.

Sharif's Power Plans

At that point, it looked as if Sharif's hopes of returning to power were dashed.

His main rival, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was in U.S.-supported talks aimed at reaching a power-sharing agreement with Musharraf. But Bhutto's return to Pakistan in October was clouded by an assassination attempt — a car-bombing in Karachi that killed more than 150 of her followers.

In November, she was briefly placed under house arrest as she prepared to lead a protest against Musharraf's declaration of a national state of emergency. Bhutto has since said that she was prepared to ally with Sharif in opposing the state of emergency, but has not said whether she would cooperate with him to take control of parliament when elections are held in January.

Re-Activating the Political Base

Sharif had been in exile since 1999, when Musharraf ousted him in a bloodless military coup. Courts under Musharraf's control convicted Sharif in absentia of terrorism and hijacking for attempting to stop Musharraf from returning to Pakistan aboard a commercial airliner.

Musharraf has ruled the country for nearly eight years with support from the United States, which saw him as a strong ally in the fight against Islamic terrorists.

As Musharraf's popularity has waned, both Sharif and Bhutto have taken advantage of his reduced power to return home and re-activate their political bases. Sharif, whose party is the Pakistan Muslim League, is regarded as the more conservative.

During his first term as prime minister in 1991, he tried unsuccessfully to make Islamic Sharia law the supreme law in Pakistan. During his second term in 1998, he presided over the country's first nuclear tests in response to similar tests by India.

Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples Party are regarded as having more support from the United States and other Western nations. Opponents of both Sharif and Bhutto point to allegations of corruption and ineffective leadership during their terms.

The Political Ascent

Sharif, now 57, was born into a wealthy industrial family in Lahore and spent his early years studying law and working in the family business. In that respect, he differs from Bhutto, who comes from Pakistan's feudal aristocracy, and Musharraf, whose parents were Muslim government officials who emigrated from India after Pakistan was created in 1947.

Sharif worked his way up through political offices in Punjab State, and was elected prime minister with the support of Islamic religious conservatives. He later lost some of that support by pursuing more secular policies. Sharif has had rocky relations with Pakistan's powerful Army chiefs, including his own appointee, Gen. Musharraf, who ousted him after the 1999 Kargil War — a disastrous and unpopular conflict with India.

Both Sharif and Bhutto have registered to run for office in Pakistan's parliamentary elections in January, a step that could give their own rivalry precedence over their opposition to Musharraf. Both are holding out the possibility that they may call on their followers to boycott the election altogether.

Sharif has said that even if he runs and wins, he would not serve as prime minister if Musharraf remains president.