Sharif told reporters in London today that he plans to return to Islamabad before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He said he intends to "launch a decisive battle against dictatorship in Pakistan."
The announcement comes after after Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently ruled Sharif could return to the country, for the first time since he was deposed in a 1999 coup led by President Pervez Musharraf.
Sharif’s reappearance is the latest in a growing tide of signs that Pakistan’s opposition may now finally be poised to effectively challenge Musharraf.
An Untenable Position
For nearly eight years since his coup, Musharraf has maintained his position as both leader of the military and president of the country.
But that dual role has become increasingly controversial and unpopular in Pakistan as it limits room for civil parties to share power.
“The major issue in the Pakistani civil society is that they are in no mood to accept the president with the uniform," Fazal-ul-Rehman, director at the Institute of Strategic Studies, a Pakistani think tank, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan.
A spokesman for the Pakistani People's Party, Farhatullah Babar, said the party had made it clear to Musharraf that "we will never accept any president in a [military] uniform, because it is against democracy."
Now, with Pakistan’s general elections looming later this year or in early 2008, the opposition parties are pressing Musharraf hard to make concessions in exchange for continuing to lead the country.
Helping lead the opposition charge is a rival of Sharif, exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
She told reporters in London on August 29 that she has struck a deal with Musharraf whereby he will resign as army chief.
She said the deal would allow Musharraf to serve another term as president if he is reelected, and would allow Bhutto to return to Pakistan to run for election as prime minister.
In his statement today, Sharif objected to the power-sharing deal between Bhutto and Musharraf, saying it would be bad for the country.
No Guarantee Of Reelection
Musharraf has yet to confirm the deal, and some tough issues reportedly remain to be worked out.
A government spokesman, Mohammed Ali Durrani, today said Musharraf has not yet decided whether he will step down as army chief, contradicting Bhutto's statement that his resignation has already been agreed.
It also remains unclear whether Musharraf would have to seek reelection from the current parliament, or wait until after general elections bring in a new legislature.
The current parliament is dominated by members favorable to Musharraf and therefore could assure his reelection. But a new parliament would likely be more independent.
The talk of power-sharing deals suggest that Musharraf may now recognize what many foreign backers like Washington have long been telling him.
That is, if he is to continue effectively leading Pakistan in the war on terror, he must broaden the government’s base to include his civil opposition.
Ahmad Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book “Taliban,” told Radio Free Afghanistan that many in Pakistan are counting on elections to help ease strains in the society, pointing in particular to unrest in the border regions near Afghanistan.
"There is a lot of tension in the Northwest Frontier Province, where, of course, there is a process of radicalization by the Taliban, but there is also a counter-movement by secular Pashtuns who don’t want any of this Talibanization. So I think, yes, there are enormous tensions and these perhaps can only be resolved by free and fair elections,” Rashid said.
What remains to be seen, now, is only how much Musharraf is actually willing to concede.
(Ayesha Khan in Prague and Radio Free Afghanistan’s Abubakar Siddique contributed to this report)