Pakistani Leaders Signal Future Cooperation

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif (Anjum Naveed - AP)
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By Joshua Partlow and Aoun Sahi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 18, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 17 -- Pakistan's leading opposition figure, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, met with President Asif Ali Zardari on Friday, following a Supreme Court ruling that acquitted Sharif of hijacking charges during a coup against his government a decade ago.

Pakistan's Supreme Court decision accelerated Sharif's movement back into the spotlight and freed him up to run for office in the future and take advantage of his position as the country's most popular politician. The four-hour meeting with Zardari suggested that there was new willingness for cooperation between two rival political parties at a time when Pakistan faces rising terrorist violence and orchestrates military operations against the Taliban.

The two leaders issued a joint 11-point statement after the meeting at Sharif's country estate outside of Lahore. In the statement, they agreed that the problems facing Pakistan are "too stupendous to be resolved by any one political party," that they should abolish an amendment of the constitution made during former president Pervez Musharraf's rule that consolidated powers in the presidency, and that the insurgency in the southern Baluchistan region needed to be addressed "urgently."

"Both sides agreed to cooperate for strengthening democracy," said Raja Zafar ul-Haq, a senior member of Sharif's party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, who attended the meeting. "Both sides agreed to continue with the fight against the menace of terror, as well."

The court case involved charges that Sharif, who served two terms as prime minister in the 1990s, hijacked a commercial airliner carrying Musharraf on Oct. 12, 1999. The day of Musharraf's flight from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, Sharif attempted to remove him as army chief. As the army mobilized in Musharraf's defense, Sharif allegedly ordered the plane not to land anywhere in Pakistan. The plane eventually landed in Karachi, Pakistan, and the army took control, leading to a coup that brought Musharraf to power. Sharif argued he was trying to prevent a coup that was already in motion, but the following year, he was convicted of hijacking. He sought exile in Saudi Arabia before returning to Pakistan in 2007.

Sharif appealed his conviction in April, and the Supreme Court found no evidence for a hijacking and said the order to divert the plane was legal. The decision effectively lifts the ban on Sharif running for office in the future, and he is expected to run for a parliament seat later this year. He has not been explicit about his ambitions for higher office, and some politicians say Sharif wants to wait to see how Zardari governs during this difficult time. The next presidential election is scheduled for 2013.

"This decision is a victory for democracy and the people of Pakistan," said Asif Karmani, an aide to Sharif. "This decision has enabled Nawaz Sharif to play his parliamentary role, as well."

On Friday, Zardari offered his congratulations on the acquittal, saying in a statement that it leveled the playing field for political leaders and strengthened the democratic process. "It upholds the principle that political battles must be fought politically and in Parliaments and not in courts," he said.

Zardari has come under intense public pressure in recent months over economic problems, inflation, power shortages and Taliban violence. Some analysts said that publicly embracing the popular Sharif could ease these tensions. "Zardari needs Nawaz Sharif to not pressure the government on economic issues" to avoid more popular unrest, said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an analyst and columnist for the Daily Times.

While the tension between the two leaders is well-known, in recent weeks, Sharif has supported Zardari on the major military campaign in the Swat Valley to take on the Taliban.

Sahi reported from Lahore. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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