Has the lion of Pakistan really become a political pussycat?

By Rob Crilly, David Blair

David Blair and Rob Crilly assess the prospects for Nawaz Sharif's third term - and his country's relationship with the West.

A Lahore building is covered in posters of once-exiled Nawaz Sharif, who has made a remarkable comeback from the political graveyard. Photo / AP
A Lahore building is covered in posters of once-exiled Nawaz Sharif, who has made a remarkable comeback from the political graveyard. Photo / AP

Hijacking an aircraft is not an offence you would normally associate with a man who stands on the verge of becoming Prime Minister of his country.

If the leader-in-waiting had also chosen to answer a charge of contempt of court by allowing a mob to storm the hearing and threaten the judges, that might be still more surprising.

If the fabulously wealthy politician in question had moreover declared that in two years he paid US$10 ($12) in income tax, you might be forgiven for believing his rise to power must be a work of fiction.

But in Pakistan, reality often outdoes the most imaginative fiction and all of the above is true of Nawaz Sharif, who has just achieved a remarkable comeback by winning an election to be Prime Minister for a third time.

The hijacking conviction - along with a formidable array of other criminal verdicts - was overturned in 2009.

And Sharif's declaration that he paid US$10 of income tax between 1994 and 1996 must be set against the fact that he broke no law and stumped up a further US$60,000 in wealth tax.

Nonetheless, it would be fair to say that if the failure of Pakistan's political system has a face, Sharif's cherubic features would once have fitted the bill.

In his political heartland of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, Sharif's supporters call him the "lion". Can this 63-year-old lion possibly change his mane? Or is he fated to symbolise the worst of a political system based on patronage, power-hunger and preservation of privilege?

Those closest to him insist that he is a changed man. Throughout the election campaign, his favourite daughter, Maryam, 39, has been his principal cheerleader. While canvassing voters from her bullet-proof car in Lahore, she told journalists: "He's a thinker now. I think there's no hunger or greed for power. This is the time he wants to do something for the country."

When Sharif last had the chance to do something for Pakistan, things did not turn out well. His first term as Prime Minister between 1990 and 1993 ended in ignominy when he was sacked by the President for alleged corruption.

When he won the 1996 election - requiring the famous tax declaration on his nomination papers - Sharif harboured an obsessive desperation to cling to power.

He rewrote the constitution to ban the President from ever sacking a Prime Minister again then he moved to neutralise every other centre of power. When Parliament proved troublesome, another amendment made MPs legally obliged to vote according to the party line. His idea of responding to a charge of contempt was to boycott the hearing and send a mob of supporters instead who ransacked the Supreme Court in 1997 and threatened the judges.

Sharif's last Government armed the Taleban regime in Afghanistan, tested nuclear weapons (in response to earlier detonations in India) and blundered into an undeclared war that cost hundreds of lives by sending Pakistani troops deep into Indian-held territory during the Kargil affair in 1999.

But there was one institution Sharif failed to subdue: Pakistan's all-powerful army. He tried his best, sacking army chief General Pervez Musharraf, while he was in midair, en route to Pakistan from Sri Lanka.

That decision sealed Sharif's downfall. Desperate to prevent the general from getting back to the country and taking revenge by launching a coup, he ordered Karachi Airport not to allow the plane to land. The runway of Pakistan's busiest airport was duly blocked with three fire engines.

The Airbus A300 with Musharraf and 197 other passengers on board was told it could not land in Pakistanbut the aircraft had insufficient fuel to go anywhere else.

With the plane down to seven minutes of fuel, the army took control of Karachi Airport and allowed the Airbus to land. Musharraf immediately overthrew Sharif, consigning him first to prison and then into exile.

Sharif was assailed by criminal cases and accumulated a battery of convictions. In 2000, he was found guilty of hijacking and corruption and banned from holding office for 21 years.

He lived in luxurious exile in Saudi Arabia until 2007, when Musharraf's regime became so discredited and unpopular that opponents of military rule were allowed to return Those convictions prevented Sharif from contesting the 2008 election but were overturned the following year.

The claim that Sharif is a changed man cannot be dismissed. Western diplomats speak privately of a more mature politician, ready to compromise in the interests of Pakistan.

President Asif Ali Zardari is one of Sharif's oldest political foes. The outgoing Government was deeply unpopular and Sharif, whose PML-N party held 91 seats on the opposition benches, might have taken his first opportunity to turf out the President's Administration. He chose not to.

Instead, Sharif's restraint was one of the factors allowing the last Government to be Pakistan's first civilian Administration to serve a full term.

"He is more diplomatic and more pragmatic than he used to be," says Osama Siddique, from the policy department at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "He still has a lot of issues, but he has learned from taking on the military and judiciary head on."

Other factors might also keep Sharif on the straight and narrow. Imran Khan, the cricket captain turned party leader, won 35 seats in this election, up from zero in the last Parliament. Khan could become a formidable opposition leader.

The fact that this election saw a turnout of about 60 per cent - exceptionally high by Pakistani standards - will strengthen the country's democracy.

Meanwhile, the local media are more diverse and outspoken than ever before, with a plethora of new television news channels.

Pakistan's tortured co-operation with the West against terrorism will remain the preserve of the army and the security establishment.

But there remains the shadow cast by his record in office. As the results came in at his campaign headquarters, Sharif was asked about his mistakes in power."There are so many things playing on my mind," he replied. "I can't remember those mistakes."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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