ISLAMABAD/LONDON, Nov 22: With a sudden change of heart on the part of the ruling Saudi family, Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has been invited to Riyadh from his ‘safe house’ in Jeddah to meet King Abdullah on Friday, and there are strong indications that he may be allowed to return to Pakistan later this month.

But even before he is given permission to leave Saudi Arabia, a new formula has been evolved through back-channel diplomacy under which Mr Shairf’s wife Kulsoom Nawaz and brother Shahbaz may return earlier, possibly by Sunday, to file their nomination papers for the coming general election.

Highly placed sources that are privy to some of the negotiations and are following the rapidly changing situation told Dawn that if this formula came through, Nawaz Sharif might delay his return, and arrive in Pakistan after Nov 26, which would be his way of avoiding participation in the Jan 8 elections.

According to agency reports, Nawaz Sharif is likely to return to Pakistan in a day or two.

Mr Sharif was expected to travel to Pakistan via London early next week, but things have moved so fast over the last 24 hours that he is now likely to go back home straight from Saudi Arabia, Nadir Chaudhry, a spokesman for the PML-N leader in London, informed Dawn on Thursday.

He denied that Gen Musharraf had allowed Nawaz to return home on the condition that he would not boycott the forthcoming elections.

On the contrary, Nadir said, President Musharraf tried to persuade King Abdullah against allowing Nawaz Sharif to go back home before the completion of the “10-year exile deal” he had signed with the Saudi authorities in 2000.

Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the PML-N, refused to be drawn on the specifics of any of these developments, but admitted that all these options were possible. He told Dawn that Nawaz Sharif might return by Sunday, and there was also a possibility that Shahbaz and Kulsoom Nawaz end their exile in the first phase, and the former prime minister returns later.

“In any case”, he said, “we have called a meeting of the party’s central executive committee in Islamabad on Sunday, and are pretty confident that it will be attended by the leadership that has so far remained in exile.”

Although equally vague on the specifics, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the head of the pro-Musharraf PML-Q, told DAWN NEWS TV that if Mr Sharif returns to Pakistan before the elections, it would be a result of a “deal” with the Saudi government, and that his party would welcome the development. He said the party was prepared to take on all such challenges. “We are not afraid of him.”

The dramatic development, said a highly placed source in the government, came after President Musharraf’s meeting with the Saudi king two days ago. Although details of the meeting were not made public, sources in the Pakistan government said President Musharraf was politely told by the Saudi authorities that after Benazir Bhutto’s return, it was “extremely difficult to hold back” another former prime minister.

Once the thinking of the Saudi government became clear to officials in Islamabad, they resolved to dilute the effect of such a major change in the political atmosphere in the run-up to the elections.

According to one such source, high-level contacts at the international level led to an understanding that Mr Sharif will start toning down his rhetoric, and in the first phase would only send Shahbaz Sharif and Kulsoom Nawaz. The two would be allowed to submit their nomination papers on an assurance that Nawaz Sharif will return only after Nov 26 — the last day for filing nominations papers — and will not stand in the elections.

Although nomination papers for the Sharif brothers and Kulsoom Nawaz had already been obtained for three different constituencies in Lahore, a leader of the PML-N said, the party was open to the idea of filing papers for one or two of these leaders.

Sources in the PML-N, as well as some influential members of the PML-Q, think that a lot depended on the outcome of Friday’s meeting between Nawaz Sharif and the Saudi king in Riyadh. “Till that time the situation would remain fluid,” said one member of the PML-Q.

The news of such developments have already sent a wave of jubilation in the PML-N camp. Several senior members of the party constantly called various newspaper offices late in the night to spread the word around and the party told its workers to make arrangements for the first central executive meeting in many years in which one of the Sharifs might also be a participant.

The reports about Nawaz Sharif’s return brought anxiety to PML-Q members as most of them thought that it could change the political equation, particularly in Punjab. Most PML-Q members have remained tight-lipped on the issue, and have been praying that the development does not lead to major defections.

The reports also brought worries to members of the PPP, but some of them pointed out that perhaps Benazir Bhutto, sensing such an eventuality, had already made direct contacts with Mr Sharif to offset the impact of his return.

Although Nawaz Sharif’s return is being regarded as one of the biggest challenges faced so far by President Musharraf and his allies, some sources said it would increase the credibility of the general election.

CONSENSUS GOVT: There have also been suggestions that with Benazir Bhutto already supporting the idea of a government of national consensus, and Nawaz Sharif now softening his tone to talk about reconciliation, there is a possibility that fresh attempt could be made to assemble all major players around a negotiating table, leading to the forming of a consensus government to ensure a smooth transition to democracy.

According to analysts, Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan and pressure from the international community made the Saudi authorities review their decision to keep Nawaz Sharif in exile for another three years.

SHAHBAZ SHARIF: It is most likely that PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif would accompany his brother to Pakistan.

People who have not seen Shahbaz Sharif in public over the last three to four days said they believed he had already flown to Saudi Arabia.

He was not seen today at a very important meeting of the PML-N in front of the Commonwealth Secretariat, reinforcing speculations that he had already left London for Jeddah.

The rally was led by Ghous Ali Shah, a former Sindh chief minister, who along with three senior members of PML-N, presented a memorandum to the Commonwealth calling for lifting of the emergency and release of lawyers, journalists and political workers. The memorandum also called for lifting the ban on Geo and ARY TV channels.


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