The serene confines of Nawaz Sharif's sprawling Lahore estate belie his tumultuous career. He has thrice been Prime Minister of Pakistan, only to be exiled for seven years, returning recently to help his erstwhile rivals defeat a common nemesis, General Pervez Musharraf. In the meantime, the coalition between Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan People's Party (led, until her assassination, by his constant antagonist Benazir Bhutto and now headed by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's President) has collapsed into bitter recrimination. Last week, the country's Supreme Court barred the ex-Premier and his brother, the Chief Minister of Punjab, from public office, a move Sharif accuses Zardari of masterminding. In an interview with TIME, Sharif spoke of his relations with Pakistan's President and other developments, including this week's attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team.
TIME: Many here in Pakistan were shocked and surprised by the attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. In your opinion, how was the situation handled?
Sharif: Some better security arrangements should have been in place. So far nothing has come out; nobody has been caught or arrested. The government was too busy trying to get our party dislodged from [the Sharif family's stronghold] Punjab, and then they imposed governor's rule [direct rule of Punjab province by the Pakistani federal government] just a few days ago. (See pictures of the cricket-team attack.)
Are you suggesting that the security situation was the result of political wrangling and distractions?
Absolutely. A lot of people were being reshuffled: pushed out, pushed in. They were in the process of removing so many people from the government. When such things take place, security suffers. The same goes for other areas in Pakistan because the problems we are facing are far too serious in nature and no party can solve them single-handedly. The government single-handedly cannot fight this crisis.
Do you think the army might step in if the security situation does not improve in time?
I hope not, but much depends on how Zardari conducts himself as far as democracy is concerned, if he does things to strengthen democratic institutions. I don't think that the present leadership of the army is inclined to step out of its domain. But you can't really handle security by dismissing members of the government and imposing governor's rule. It is aggravating the situation actually and adding fuel to the fire.
What are we fighting the terrorists for if we ourselves do not even stand up for democracy civil liberties and fundamental rights which includes independence of the judiciary?
Do you believe that Zardari is trying to stifle opposition?
We don't pose a threat to Mr. Zardari. All my party is talking about is a democratic Pakistan. This is what we actually decided with Benazir Bhutto. She is the one who signed the Charter of Democracy with me. It was the political will of Benazir Bhutto, which Mr. Zardari should have followed and acted upon. He has not followed her political will. He has taken a different agenda altogether, an agenda which will take Pakistan further away from democracy.
The Supreme Court's decision effectively bars you from contesting the presidency in 2013. But you've said you are not driven to seek office of any kind. What do you say to skeptics who believe you will inevitably do so?
Ask Mr. Zardari. Did I ever seek an office from him? Did I ever say that I want the office of the President or of Prime Minister? We have sacrificed everything for the sake of democracy. This is a noble agenda, and I think the civil society of this country, the youth, the lawyers' society and the media are all on one side.
Zardari's spokesman says you do not talk about terrorism and that you raise only the issue of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry [whose dismissal by Musharraf led to the dramatic 2007 revolt of Pakistan's lawyers; Zardari has not restored Chaudhry to his old post, a move Sharif has demanded]. What is your reaction to this?
We were partners, but now the partnership is over. We have been going the extra mile to support the government on fighting the issue of terrorism and extremism. We enabled the government to pass a resolution in the National Assembly and then how to deal with this problem.
[But] there was an agenda we signed together when we formed our government. It was a democratic agenda to re-establish a rule of law, constitutional supremacy, the sovereignty of the parliament and the independence of the judiciary. These were the primary objectives laid down before signing this agreement between me and Mr. Zardari. These things have not been implemented at all. The legal fraternity today is up in arms with what they consider judges who were brought into these courts by Mr. Musharraf. Their allegiance was not to the state but to Mr. Musharraf and now to Mr. Zardari.
On March 16, you will participate in a long march calling for the reinstatement of judges dismissed by Musharraf. What are you looking to accomplish?
If they get reinstated, then the country will get an independent judiciary. If they get reinstated, there will be rule of law in the country. If they get reinstated, all these controversial amendments in the constitution introduced by Mr. Musharraf will have to be repealed. I think for any society to develop and become a civilized society, they need an independent judiciary.
But given the overall deterioration of security in the country, is this the right time to push this issue?
It is never the right time for a long march, but is this the right time for the government to disqualify its opponents? Is this the right time for Mr. Zardari to impose governor's rule in the biggest province in the country? Is this the right time for Mr. Zardari to create these divisions within the coalition? I think the need was to make everybody come together at the table. Mr. Zardari should have done that. Now is the time to act as President of the people of Pakistan, not as the president of the Pakistan People's Party.