After Bhutto's Death, Sharif Steps Forward

Pakistanis pay their respects to Benazir Bhutto at Liaqat Bagh Park in Rawalpindi, the site of the former Pakisitani prime minister's final speech and assassination.
By Emily Wax and Imtiaz Ali
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 4, 2008

LAHORE, Pakistan, Jan. 3 -- In the polished marble foyer of his mansion, former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif keeps two ferocious-looking stuffed lions. They were purchased in Africa, and they greet visitors with piercing eyes.

Sharif and his trademark lions and tigers are splashed across his campaign billboards throughout Pakistan. In a way, they have become a telling metaphor for a man who was once on the brink of political extinction but who has reemerged as a powerful force in a tense time.

"Pakistan is in a very serious situation. I'm here to do what I can," Sharif said Thursday, sitting in a gold and silk thronelike chair in his lavish country home. "But the country doesn't need a one-man show. Pakistan has become a laughingstock. We need General Musharraf to step down. We need a return to the judges, a return to rule of law, a return to democracy."

In November, after Sharif returned to Pakistan from an eight-year exile, he was largely overshadowed by Benazir Bhutto, whose personal magnetism and storied lineage dominated the political landscape here. Now, a week after Bhutto's assassination, Sharif is the country's most experienced opposition leader and regarded by many as the one to watch.

In light of Bhutto's death, Sharif, 58, who was prime minister when Pakistan's first nuclear bomb was detonated and who once attempted to impose Islamic law, is trying to recast himself from a vilified -- and allegedly corrupt -- figure into a viable leader capable of uniting disparate political and religious parties. His ability to do so is all the more important at a time when political instability and rising Islamic extremism are heightening security concerns not only in this region, but also in Washington.

His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, is viewed with caution by U.S. officials, but it has the long-standing support of Pakistanis, who turn out by the thousands to see Sharif.

Newspaper commentators have lately taken to calling Sharif "Nawaz Light," and political pundits say he is playing his cards right. Once an establishment figure, he now condemns President Pervez Musharraf as a military dictator. And although he was once a bitter enemy of Bhutto's, he has made a series of well-calculated moves to appeal to her loyalists.

"He rushed to visit Bhutto at the hospital. He put a wreath on her grave," said Sartaj Aziz, finance minister and later foreign minister under Sharif, who was elected prime minister twice in the 1990s. "He's showing powerful leadership when the country feels at a loss. He's learned a lot in exile."

Sharif is a product of the military. In the mid-1980s, when he was an unknown businessman, he was handpicked as a protege of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, a Pakistani military dictator who once called Sharif his "son."

It was with the blessing of the military that Sharif became chief minister of the politically important Punjab province in 1985. He eventually came to be seen as a religiously minded alternative to Bhutto, who was progressive and had a more secular outlook.

"The West was obsessed with Benazir, who was beautiful and charming and had the appeal of being a female Muslim leader. But Sharif is more indigenous. He is Pakistan," said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Sharif's party.

With a stocky build and a reputation for loving large amounts of Pakistani rice and lamb kabobs, Sharif is popular among observant Muslims and is respected for bringing Pakistan the nuclear bomb, a cornerstone of national pride against arch-rival India.

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