|Posted By Philippe Khan
September 13, 2007
By arresting former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges and deporting him to Saudi Arabia hours after he landed in Pakistan on Monday, Pakistan’s military-led government has put itself in a very tough situation.
In December 2000, Mr Sharif was granted a presidential pardon in two criminal convictions and exiled to Saudi Arabia. Pakistani and Saudi governments say he agreed to remain in Saudi Arabia until 2010 as part of a deal that saw him released from prison. His latest deportation to Saudi Arabia means that he could be out of the picture for another three years.
In its decision to expel Mr Sharif, the government has opted for a confrontation with the Supreme Court, which ruled in July that Sharif had an “inalienable right” to return to Pakistan, ending a seven-year-long exile.
According to an article on the BBC, the government didn’t want to allow Sharif, an unpredictable rival, to set Pakistan's political agenda ahead of elections due later this year. But will this deportation make life easier for embattled U.S. ally Gen Pervez Musharraf? And what was he thinking when he decided to break the Supreme Court ruling?
The answers may lie in the choices Gen Musharraf faces during the next couple of months.
Eight years after Gen Musharraf toppled Mr Sharif’s government in a dramatic coup, the Pakistani president’s approval ratings have sunk to unprecedented lows. For more than year, he has been struggling to contain growing public unrest, and an increasingly independent judiciary.
Gen Musharraf has also been embroiled in a political crisis since his failed attempt to sack the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, earlier this year; a move that sparked mass protests by lawyers, civil society groups and opposition parties. Musharraf suspended Chaudhry on misconduct charges, seeing the independent-minded judge as a possible obstacle to his bid to stay in power. However, the president suffered a major blow when the Supreme Court reinstated Chaudhry in July.
All these troubles have come just two months before Gen Musharraf's term as president expires. The president is expected to seek another five-year term from parliament in the coming month, amid controversy over whether he will do so in uniform, a move criticised by opposition parties and especially by Mr Sharif.
Gen Musharraf’s term as the army chief technically expired in August 2003 when he reached retirement age, but a special act of parliament allowed him to carry on as both president and army chief until 15 November 2007. He has been considering different options to keep both posts for another term, but none of them are likely to be backed by a court.
The president is currently in talks with former prime minister and PPP leader, Benazir Bhutto, for a power-sharing deal but there are problems over her demands that he give up his army post and settle for reduced presidential powers.
Another option for Gen Musharraf is that he could order his intelligence agencies to ensure a parliamentary victory for his PML-Q party supporters by rigging the elections. But this could backfire due to the growing influence of the outspoken media in Pakistan.
Given these tough choices, the government feared that an anti-Musharraf campaign led by Mr Sharif could reduce the president’s chances for winning the elections, especially in the wake of a renewed campaign by the country's lawyers to stop Gen Musharraf from running for another term. Mr Sharif’s stay in the country might also have tempted the PPP, Pakistan’s largest party, to either toughen its demands in its talks with Gen Musharraf, or to end the negotiations altogether, particularly because Bhutto has been criticised for trying to reach a deal with the government.
Therefore, it was imperative for the government to block Mr Sharif from returning, and the best option was to deport him again to Saudi Arabia. But even that decision doesn’t guarantee an election victory for Gen Musharraf, who has been described by political analysts as a “power-hungry general” who wants to extend his stay in power by any means.
First, the government risks a backlash from lawyers and opposition groups who view Mr Sharif's deportation as an illegal move. The move also triggered international criticism. The European Union and Britain have called on the Pakistani government to obey the rule of law, while Human Rights Watch said that Gen Musharraf had flouted international concepts of justice by expelling Sharif. Ironically, the U.S. said it was an internal matter for Pakistan to handle.
Second, Mr Sharif’s expulsion would make it harder for the PPP to continue to negotiate power sharing with a government that has violated the basic rights of a popular leader.
And finally, the Supreme Court will be under pressure to hold the government accountable. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party already filed a petition with the Supreme Court on Tuesday asking it to order the government to allow the immediate return of the two-time premier. The party also asked the court to bring contempt of court charges against Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao and other senior officials. "Nawaz Sharif was illegally abducted and the architect of this unlawful act is General Pervez Musharraf," senior party official and lawmaker Khawaja Asif told reporters.
If the Supreme Court rules in favour of Mr Sharif it will be another blow to the government's credibility.
The manner in which Mr Sharif was deported was a "clear attempt to provoke the Supreme Court and send a strong message of defiance," Abbas Athar, a columnist for the Urdu-language Daily Express newspaper, told AFP.
"A showdown between Musharraf and the Supreme Court looks on the cards," he said.