The former prime minister's return on Sunday could fill the opposition's leadership void.
The return Sunday of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who ended eight years of exile just one day before the deadline to register for parliamentary elections, adds a powerful wild card that could bring either political stability or continued discord to Pakistan in the run-up to the January vote, analysts say.
If Mr. Sharif decides to run in the elections, he is likely to pull in the rest of the political opposition – including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto – with him. His candidacy could provide a much-needed sheen of legitimacy to the process. But if the two-time ex-premier heeds what many in his camp are suggesting and boycotts the election, remaining outside the political process, he could find himself leading a street movement.
"If Nawaz Sharif plays according to the new rules set up by [President Pervez] Musharraf, he would be doing the general a favor," says Rasul Baksh Rais, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, referring specifically to Pakistan's new Supreme Court and elections announced under the state of emergency. If he chooses to stay away from the election, however, "it would delegitimize the entire electoral process and put pressure on Musharraf to get out of the system altogether."
On Sunday, thousands of cheering supporters broke police security barriers around Lahore's international airport to receive Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, who some suggest may become the new face of the party if the government bars his elder sibling from contesting elections.
Sharif flew directly to Pakistan from the Islamic holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia, and was escorted to his vehicle through throngs of ecstatic supporters, before addressing a rally.
A wildly influential and powerful leader from Punjab, the most populous province in the country, and by default the strongest in Pakistan's electoral college, Sharif can expect to emerge as an influential leader once again.
"Nawaz Sharif's return will weigh heavily on the political situation in Pakistan," says Ansar Abbasi, an editor at one of the country's top English newspapers, The News. "Sharif has the power to muster up the opposition forces like no one else," he says.