Ex-Pakistan Leader Returns to Hero's Welcome

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan Sunday evening, marking a turning point in the political power struggle gripping this nation.

He and his family were flown from Saudi Arabia to Lahore in a jet provided by King Abdullah.

Unlike on Sept. 10, when Sharif made his first attempt to enter the country, this time there were no police waiting to detain and deport him. Instead, Sharif received a hero's welcome. Thousands of his supporters crowded into the airport in Lahore to greet him upon his arrival. Some held signs and chanted, "Go Musharraf Go!"

Earlier in the day, police clashed with supporters trying to get through a security cordon outside the airport terminal, but the police eventually let hundreds of party members through. Sharif exited the arrivals terminal flanked by dozens of airport security guards, and was immediately swarmed by his supporters.

Before he took off from Medina, he told the BBC, "We want democracy and nothing else. I am here to play my role and also make my own efforts to ride the country of dictatorship."

Sharif's return means that he can contest the parliamentary elections, which Musharraf's chosen caretaker government has said will occur on Jan. 8. He arrived just in time to meet the Monday deadline for filing nomination papers.

Sharif is the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, while Musharraf's party is the Pakistan Muslim League. Analysts say that Sharif's return to the political stage could steal votes from PML, especially as Musharraf's emergency rule has discredited him among some party members.

However, Musharraf could also stand to gain if Sharif and the other main opposition leader Benazir Bhutto participate in the elections, because they would lend credibility to the polls. Musharraf has been under international pressure to hold fair and democratic elections.

It is now virtually guaranteed that Musharraf will be sworn-in for a second five-year term as president. He overcame legal challenges to his re-election, and now all that remains between him and a second term is an official announcement of his victory by the cabinet, which is expected early this week.

However, Musharraf has agreed to first take off his military uniform, giving up his position as army chief of staff. It is unclear how that move will affect his real power.

Sharif and his party may yet decide to boycott the polls if Musharraf does not agree to certain conditions, including lifting the emergency rule that has been in place since Nov. 3.

According to the Associated Press, Sharif told reporters at the airport, "I have no lust for any post or power..I came to serve the people and save Pakistan."

Under pressure from Saudi Arabia, where Sharif had been living in exile, Musharraf agreed to allow his archrival to come back to Pakistan. As army chief, Musharraf led a bloodless coup overthrowing Sharif's government in 1999.

Sharif was charged with tax evasion and attempted murder in relation to a hijacking, but he traded a life-sentence for an agreement to not return to Pakistan for 10 years. There was no mention of that upon his return.

Instead, Sharif and Bhutto are billing themselves as the saviors of democracy in Pakistan.