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A New Challenge to Musharraf

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The decision by Pakistan's Supreme Court to allow former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to return home from exile makes life a lot harder for embattled President Pervez Musharraf — and for his U.S. backers. The Court found that Nawaz and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, had been unconstitutionally forced to leave Pakistan in 2000, a year after Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup. It ruled that the brothers "have an inalienable right to come back and stay in the country." In London, Nawaz vowed to return home as soon as he could.

The ruling challenges Musharraf in a couple of ways. First, it shows the strength and independence of the Supreme Court, which may prove Musharraf's most formidable opponent in the coming weeks. When he tried, in March, to dismiss Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry on allegations of misconduct, the move backfired on Musharraf. Massive rallies in support of the suspended judge swept the country, and moderate Pakistanis who had previously tolerated Musharraf as a bulwark against corruption and Islamist extremism began to view him as a ham-fisted dictator attempting to remove a potential obstacle to his plan to remain in office. Chaudhry was reinstated by the Court last month, and today's ruling is an indication of the willingness of the bench to flex its muscles.

An assertive judiciary could prove pivotal in the run-up to elections due in the next few months. Musharraf wants the current parliament to elect him to another term of office before the general election returns a new legislature. But according to Pakistan's constitution, he can't run until he steps down from his role as head of the military — something he is showing no sign of doing. (Musharraf won a one-term waiver of this law five years ago, but that expires in November). The President has also been speaking with another exiled former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto — a fierce rival of Sharif — about sharing power after the election. Such a deal would win him more parliamentary support, but Bhutto faces outstanding corruption charges in Pakistan that the Supreme Court, rather than Musharraf, would have to drop to allow her to return.

Now, there's also the prospect of a resurgent Sharif, the Prime Minister Musharraf ousted in a coup and swore he would never allow to return to Pakistan. Nawaz's tenure ended with the economy on the brink of collapse and amidst allegations of corruption and mismanagement. Although support for the former Prime Minister remained lackluster a few months ago, since news broke late last month of a possible Bhutto-Musharraf union, support for Bhutto and her party has dropped, while Sharif's has risen. "Benazir was leading the polls until she met Musharraf," says Ahsan Iqbal, Secretary of Information for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim LeagueşNawaz party. "We have been beneficiaries of the situation; PML-N stock has been bullish."

The new development could spell trouble for Washington, which has strongly backed Musharraf since 9/11, and has lately supported the idea of an alliance between him and Benazir Bhutto as widening the base of a moderate center. Sharif's return would give Pakistanis angry with Musharraf an easy way to register a protest against him and his foreign backers. "They [the U.S.] can't gain anything by salvaging a dictator; there is no credible political party that supports Musharraf," says the PML-N's Iqbal. Or as Iftikhar Gilani, Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court and former Law Minister under Bhutto puts it: "I am angry at this attitude of the Americans. Of course we want good government, but it should be one of our choosing. They shouldn't be saying this name, that name, this is the good government for you. Good government in Pakistan means the choice of the people, not the choice of America." To the extent that a Musharraf-Bhutto union is seen as blessed by the U.S., Nawaz Sharif will be hoping to capitalize on the backlash.

— With reporting by Aryn Baker/Islamabad