Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif will make another attempt to return from exile, his party said Thursday, setting up a new confrontation with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf before Pakistan's critical parliamentary elections.
With Saudi leaders appearing to back Sharif's desire to leave Saudi Arabia, Musharraf appeared to have few options for fending off the return of a former prime minister who would also challenge pro-Western Benazir Bhutto in her bid to return to power as premier.
Sharif's plan was announced hours after the Supreme Court, with judges appointed by Musharraf, swept away the last legal obstacles to his new five-year term as president. The Election Commission was freed to certify Musharraf's re-election by legislators last month.
The U.S.-allied leader was expected to give up his dual, and powerful, post as army chief within days in hopes of cooling domestic and foreign criticism over his suspension of the constitution and assumption of emergency powers three weeks ago.
But discontent has intensified this year over Musharraf's rule, which began with a coup that ousted Sharif as prime minister in 1999. A return by Sharif, a vehement critic of the general and leader of one of the two main opposition parties, would be sure to bolster the anti-government campaign.
Presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi declined to say what Musharraf would do if Sharif tried to enter Pakistan. Sharif was swiftly deported to Saudi Arabia when he tried to return in September.
That expulsion was supported by Saudi Arabia's government, but Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, president of Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, said Sharif now had "some deal" with Saudi authorities.
"We are ready to face him and he has to face the people" in the parliamentary elections set for Jan. 9, Hussain said on Dawn News television.
Musharraf has insisted that Sharif stay out of Pakistan until after the elections, which the West hopes will produce a moderate government able to turn the tide against Islamic militants who have shown increased strength in the tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.
Speculation that Saudi Arabia was willing to let Sharif go home had been rife since Musharraf made a surprise trip to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for talks with King Abdullah on Tuesday.
Sharif's party said he was coming to Pakistan to lead the party in the elections. He had been calling for parties to boycott the vote, but apparently changed his mind after Bhutto's bloc and other rival opposition groups didn't take up the idea.
Bhutto said Thursday that it could take weeks for the fractious opposition to work any agreement on a boycott and that her party would file nomination papers for its candidates in the meantime.
"We don't want to give a walkover to the opposition," she told reporters in Karachi.
Sharif's party said its leader flew from the Red Sea town of Jiddah to Riyadh on a plane sent by King Abdullah on Thursday and that the two men would meet Friday. There was no confirmation from the Saudis.
In September, two days before Sharif tried to return home, Abdullah sent his intelligence chief to Islamabad to declare that the ex-premier should respect an agreement with Saudi Arabia to stay out of Pakistan for 10 years. Musharraf agreed to cancel a life sentence imposed on Sharif after the coup.
But Sharif spokesman Ahsan Iqbal said Saudi leaders had been dismayed at criticism within Pakistan of their role in that affair and didn't want to take sides in the current bitter political wrangling.
He said Musharraf's government would struggle to find somewhere else to send Sharif.
"No country will want to take such a strong political position when `Mush' is so unpopular and the whole country is protesting against him," Iqbal said. "The best (Musharraf) can do is put him in jail" for alleged corruption.
Sharif's politician brother, Shahbaz Sharif, said the party would announce Saturday when the former prime minister would return, perhaps before the end of the month.
The re-emergence of a heavyweight rival creates a new headache for Musharraf as he tries to defend the emergency powers he decreed Nov. 3 against stiff criticism at home and abroad, including from the United States, a key provider of aid.
Najam Sethi, editor of the Pakistani newspaper Daily Times, said letting Sharif return would give Musharraf a peg for defending his democratic credentials. But it also could undermine the ruling party, which is made up mainly of former Sharif supporters who deserted him after the coup, he said.
"Mr. Sharif's presence in the country would embolden many people to desert" the ruling party and split the votes of conservative secularists in the election, Sethi said.
That could "indirectly help Ms. Bhutto in a three-way fight, so it would be very significant if he were to be allowed to come back," Sethi said.
Musharraf declared the emergency just before the previous Supreme Court was to rule on complaints that the constitution bars the army chief from running for elected office. He then removed independent-minded judges and named loyalists to the court.
Authorities also took independent TV news channels off the air and arrested thousands of lawyers, opposition party supporters and human rights activists.
The government says most detainees were freed this week and Thursday's court ruling meant Musharraf could meet another demand of his critics by resigning his military post and governing as a civilian president. Attorney General Malik Mohammed said that could happen this weekend.
The U.S. has so far stood by Musharraf, a key ally in its fight against extremist groups, but it also has been the loudest voice in an international chorus calling for a quick end to emergency rule to allow free and fair elections.
The Commonwealth, a 53-nation group composed mainly of Britain and its former colonies, voted at a meeting in Uganda to suspend Pakistan's membership for after Musharraf failed to meet the association's Thursday deadline for him to lift the crackdown and quit as army chief.
The group "welcomes the release of detainees, but is concerned about the arrest of journalists and lawyers," its secretary-general, Don McKinnon, told reporters.
Pakistan was last kicked out of the organization in 1999 after Musharraf seized power in a coup. It took the country five years to be reinstated. ( AP )