(photo credit: AP)
Pakistan's military ruler faced new challenges Friday after an opposition party said its exiled leader would make another attempt to return home and the Commonwealth suspended the country's membership until it restores democracy.
The return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from Saudi Arabia would bolster opponents of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf ahead of Jan. 8 parliamentary elections, and complicate pro-Western rival Benazir Bhutto's bid to return to power.
Sharif's plan was announced Thursday 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 US-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. Sharif is now a vehement critic of the general and leader of one of the two main opposition parties.
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 was to meet the king on Friday, his party said.
Sharif's party said he was coming to Pakistan to lead the party in the elections. He has been calling for parties to boycott the vote, but other rival opposition groups haven't taken up the idea.
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.
Musharraf imposed 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 blocked independent TV news and arrested thousands of lawyers, opposition party supporters and human rights activists.
All but one news channel is back on air and 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 Qayyum said that could happen this weekend.
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 because Musharraf failed to meet its Thursday deadline 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.
State-run Pakistan Television on Friday read out a message of support for Musharraf from his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, who said he "completely" understood Musharraf's efforts to stabilize Pakistan.
"I firmly believe that, under the leadership of your excellency, Pakistan is able to properly handle the internal and external challenges, realize smooth transition and continue to maintain stability and development," Hu was quoted as saying.
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