TOPICS > Politics

Exiled Former Prime Minister Sharif Can Return to Pakistan

August 23, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Two days ago, I interviewed Benazir Bhutto, an exiled former Pakistani prime minister eager to return home to run for office. Now, it looks likely Bhutto will have company, the man who once replaced her as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif, also in exile, received a green light today from Pakistan’s highest court to return home and lead his wing of the Pakistan Muslim league in parliamentary elections this fall. In London today, Sharif said the Supreme Court ruling was “a great setback to dictatorship” and marked “the beginning of the end” for President Pervez Musharraf.

For more on the significance of today’s development for America’s ally in the war on terror, Pakistan, we turn to Steve Coll, a staff writer for the New Yorker who served in South Asia for the Washington Post.

Steve, welcome back to the program.

STEVE COLL, Staff Writer, The New Yorker: Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start with, who is Nawaz Sharif, and why is he in exile?

STEVE COLL: Nawaz Sharif is essentially a machine politician from northeastern Pakistan in the Punjab from the prominent business family. He became prime minister first in the early ’90s and served a second term in the mid-’90s.

During his second term, he became ambitious in the eyes of the army beyond his station and, after a dispute with the army, was the victim of a coup attempt, a successful coup attempt by Pervez Musharraf. In the aftermath of that coup, he was arrested, jailed on a variety of charges, some concerning his performance in office and some concerning the coup, and eventually a deal was negotiated that sent him into exile for 10 years. That’s the deal that was unwound today by the Pakistan Supreme Court.

Differences between Bhutto, Sharif

MARGARET WARNER: So now he wants to come back and lead his party in the parliamentary elections. Benazir Bhutto wants to do the same with her party. What's the most important distinction for us to understand between Benazir Bhutto and her party and Nawaz Sharif and his?

STEVE COLL: Well, Benazir Bhutto's party has a longer history as a national popular party. It started out in the '70s as a people's movement with a sort of leftist inflection, and then it has become a more complicated party. But it still has roots in the southern province of Sindh.

MARGARET WARNER: Which is where she's from?

STEVE COLL: Which is where she's from, her family is from. The Muslim League also has a rich history, but Nawaz Sharif's faction within it is a little more recent and perhaps a little bit more a product of the establishment. It's located primarily in the northeastern province of Punjab, though it also has legitimate claims to a national following.

So what it really represents, I think in both cases, should they both return, would be a pretty full restoration of Pakistani constitutional democracy as it has existed at intervals in the country's history.

MARGARET WARNER: Somebody has compared it really to the Democratic and Republican Parties in a funny way, the two.

STEVE COLL: You could make that comparison in the sense that Benazir's party, the Pakistan People's Party, leans a little center-left and Sharif's leans a little center-right. But they both have strong regional bases in addition to their ideological differences.

Musharraf's ability to retain power

MARGARET WARNER: Now what Sharif is -- the kind of return he's envisioning, at least he's talking about, is quite different than Bhutto's, which is she's talking about negotiating a deal with President Musharraf where he gets to stay on as president and she wins enough to become prime minister in those elections. Sharif is saying, "I want to come back and challenge him, and I don't think he should be president again."

So what does this court ruling today do to Musharraf's ability to retain power?

STEVE COLL: Well, it depends on how he plays his hands.

MARGARET WARNER: Musharraf or Sharif?

STEVE COLL: Musharraf. If you step back and look at what's been going on this year, there's been a gradual erosion of Musharraf's position as military leader and essentially self-anointed president of Pakistan. This has culminated in a series of negotiations that he has undertaken, partly under pressure and partly voluntarily, to see if he can come up with a formula to allow at least a partial restoration of democratic politics in Pakistan.

These negotiations that he undertook with Benazir appear to be stalemated. Nawaz's entry into the scene could, in a sense, strengthen Musharraf's hands with Benazir by essentially allowing him to take first call against her rival, or it could produce yet more pressure without a fixed end.

In Pakistan, things are usually not always what they seem. And I think that there is a background of quiet negotiations going on among the army and the political leaders and even the courts. Nobody is going to become prime minister of Pakistan without the army's support in the end, and so some kind of accommodation is going to have to be reached.

Taking aim at the United States

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think that Musharraf will let either of them come back unless they have an agreement with him?

STEVE COLL: Not without additional negotiations, in my judgment. The Supreme Court controls the laws and was able to repudiate this deal today. It was an important development, but the army controls the airports. Nawaz Sharif is not going to fly in and walk out of any airport without the army's permission.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some have been predicting there could be chaos in the streets if Sharif tried to come back without a deal, and then the army could have to step in, but you don't see that scenario?

STEVE COLL: It seems to me unlikely. Sharif's been in exile for a long while. He's occasionally made noise about returning without permission. He hasn't done it, for good reason. His family would be in jeopardy if he did that. His family has many interests that would be placed at issue if he acted recklessly.

What I see going on here is a kind of dual track, public posturing and perhaps private negotiations, that could produce a constitutional agreement within a matter of weeks or months.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you alluded to the pressure on Musharraf. And, of course, the United States, the Bush administration has been actively engaged in trying to shepherd this Bhutto-Musharraf deal and urging Musharraf that it was time to cede some power and share power.

But today Sharif really took aim at the United States, saying -- you know, very critical of the U.S. for, quote, "supporting uniform tyranny in Pakistan." How does today's development complicate things for the United States?

STEVE COLL: Well, anti-American politics is good politics in Pakistan, so Sharif, I think, is speaking to some of his audience in Pakistan more than to the United States directly.

But the United States, the Bush administration has come a little bit late, but with some belated vigor to the possibility of a negotiated agreement. And no agreement in the end was going to be sustainable if it didn't include Sharif's return, because he does lead a faction of the Muslim League that has been important in Pakistani national life. And the ideal constitutional agreement, if it is achievable, would certainly include him and his followers.

So this makes what was a bilateral negotiation more complicated, but it also holds out greater promise than the earlier side deal that seemed to be developing between Musharraf and Benazir.

Implications for Islamic militancy

MARGARET WARNER: Longer range or bigger picture, do you think today's development -- taken with all the others that we've talked about -- has implications for what the U.S. is really concerned about, which is Pakistan's role in fighting Islamic militancy along its border and also within its borders?

STEVE COLL: I think it does, and I think it's promising. In the long run, Pakistan's stability and a democratic constitutional order there is in its interest and it's also in the interest of the United States.

A long-term bargain that perhaps resembled the one that prevails in Turkey, where the army feels secure in its position and its role in national security, but creates space in the foreground for civilian politicians to compete and to lead in a democratic order is in everybody's interest. And it is also rooted in Pakistani history. It is achievable.

Finally, greater plurality in Pakistani politics will reduce the space occupied by radical Islamist parties and groups. They will now have to compete with more politicians and more parties, and they will find that their side deals with the army in the past, which have strengthened them, may now be in jeopardy. So I think, in the long run, this is the way forward for Pakistanis, as well as for the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let's hope you're right. Steven Coll of the New Yorker, thank you.

STEVE COLL: Thank you, Margaret.

JIM LEHRER: A reminder that Margaret is going on a reporting trip to Pakistan later this week, and her pieces will begin to air the week of Labor Day.