Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, has been earning popular support for defying
Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan [GALLO/GETTY]
  

 

As Pakistan holds its general election on Monday, the consensus is that the Pakistan People's Party of Benazir Bhutto, the slain former prime minister, will ride into power on a giant wave of sympathy.

 

However, many are overlooking the key role Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, is likely to play as a kingmaker after the polls.

 

Sharif may not enjoy the support of George Bush, the US president, who in an interview last year lamented Sharif's lack of commitment to the "war on terror" before conceding that he did not know the Pakistani leader well enough. But such lack of support has not fazed Sharif. 

 

Rather, while pledging to fight extremism on his terms, the right-leaning Sharif has repeatedly called on Bush "not to confuse Musharraf with Pakistan" and instead "invest in the people of Pakistan".

 

This is just one of the many seemingly uncompromising stances that appear to have endeared Sharif to a vast majority of Pakistanis.

 

Lasting image

 

The image of a grieving Sharif at the Rawalpindi General Hospital where Bhutto lay dead on December 27 was an unforgettable one - one that is likely to remain in the collective memory of Pakistanis. Only months ago, the picture had seemed improbable, and going further back in time, even inconceivable.

 

But few doubted the genuineness of his emotion. Sharif's facial expressions have always revealed what he is truly feeling and his bereavement touched Pakistan.

 

It dovetailed with Sharif winning critical acclaim of late for political maturity and sagacity.

 

While the impact of that poignant image may not last, given the frailties of public memory and political compulsions, it is viewed as a radical departure from the times when Bhutto and Sharif were locked in a bitter struggle for power and used all means to run down each other.

 

'Child of the establishment'

 

Once dubbed the "child of the establishment" - an unflattering reference to his guided political rise, Sharif's defiance of Musharraf, regardless of the odds, has changed the way people view him.

 

By signing a Charter of Democracy in London in 2006, both he and Bhutto surprised many with their willingness to set aside the acrimony. The charter was aimed at restoring democracy by ousting Musharraf through a popular movement.

 

But Musharraf weaned Bhutto away from that nascent understanding.

 

She distanced herself from the opposition to have decade-long corruption charges against herself and husband Asif Zardari dropped. The PPP boycotted the September 2007 vote to re-elect Musharraf as president but refused to resign like the rest of the opposition to de-legitimise the exercise. 

 

Sharif had feared such "betrayal" though he continued to put on a brave face.

 

When Bhutto declined to attend an opposition conference in London last July, Sharif, who had initially called for the meeting, pressed ahead regardless and formed a new opposition alliance - the All Parties Democratic Movement.

 

Bhutto said the move was "uncalled for" and criticised Sharif. But Sharif surprised pundits by refusing to be drawn into a slanging match.

 

When he was deported by Musharraf on his first attempt in September 2007 to return home from his exile in Saudi Arabia, Bhutto offered him no support and played down the incident as an exile deal gone wrong.

 

Despite the provocative suggestion from Bhutto, the PML-N again maintained a dignified silence.

 

Paradigm shift

 

Even with Bhutto back in Pakistan, Sharif continued to refuse to compromise with Musharraf on his return. In fact, he sought a boycott of the general elections by pleading with Bhutto to join him.

 

Many believe it is this type of defiance that led to Sharif's eventual sidelining from the electoral fray.

 

Sharif met Bhutto in December to map out a
plan in case of vote rigging [GALLO/GETTY]
Nevertheless, Bhutto and Sharif finally managed to put aside their differences and hold a meeting in Islamabad last December.

 

This created ripples in the civil and military establishment - and sleepless nights for Musharraf's allies, who formed the Pakistan Muslim League-Q after breaking away from the Sharif-led PML in 2001.

 

After failing to agree on a boycott but leaving the option open, Sharif decided to allow his party to take the plunge. He and Bhutto agreed to launch joint popular agitation in the event of mass vote rigging in the upcoming elections.

 

The growing amity between Bhutto and Sharif was a paradigm shift in Pakistani politics despite their differences over the restoration of judges deposed by Musharraf last summer.

 

The rapprochement between the PPP and the PML-N seems to have also survived Bhutto's assassination, frustrating the secret hopes of their opponents.

 

In addition to rushing to the hospital where Bhutto died, Sharif was the first mainstream leader to visit her grave, hailing the Muslim world's first woman prime minister as a "martyr of democracy" and lamenting the immense loss of a "leader of international stature".

 

In continuation of a process of national healing, Sharif said he accepted the PPP's change in command and was ready to do business with Zardari, his former bete noir.

 

Investing in the future?

 

But even before Bhutto's assassination, Musharraf's backroom specialists had failed to woo Sharif into dropping his opposition to the recently retired general.

 

So far, Sharif has refused every offer, including an invitation to re-unite the PML-N with the pro-Musharraf PML-Q.

 

In all likelihood, Sharif is betting on a future rooted in populism, especially given that Musharraf's star is on the wane and the popularity of his favoured PML-Q apparently unsalvageable.

 

Sharif also appears to have the nation's pulse on the issue of an independent and vibrant judiciary.

 

Last week he had a retired chief justice administer oath to all his party members participating in the polls. The members were made to swear that they would work for the restoration of judges deposed by Musharraf following the imposition of emergency rule last November.

 

Grandstanding or not, such measures are sure to be popular and will help set apart Sharif's party from the rest in the polls next week.

 

In the event of a rigged poll and uncertainty surrounding the formation of the next government and the very complicated situation pertaining to Musharraf's political survival, Sharif appears to have invested in the future rather than settle for short-term gain.

 

Only time will tell if he is on the right side of history.

 

The writer is a news editor at Dawn News, an independent Pakistani television channel.

Source: Al Jazeera