LONDON -- When former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was forced into exile nearly eight years ago, few of his compatriots were particularly sorry to see him go.
Many Pakistanis, weary of what they considered a corrupt and inefficient government, had welcomed Sharif's ouster at the hands of a no-nonsense military man, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who promised moderation and stability.
Now, Sharif, 57, is poised to make what his followers expect will be a triumphal return -- a homecoming that is certain to trigger more turmoil in what has been the most violent and turbulent year of Musharraf's rule.
The travails of Musharraf, long regarded by the U.S. as a key ally in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida, are being viewed with considerable trepidation in Washington.
The Bush administration, while expressing broad hopes for a transition to democratic rule in Pakistan, has put little visible pressure on Musharraf to ensure that takes place.
Parliamentary elections are to take place by early next year, but there are major doubts as to whether they will be free and fair. In the coming month, Musharraf intends to have himself voted to another presidential term by the outgoing national and provincial assemblies, which he controls. He so far has resisted opposition demands that he relinquish his position as head of the military before doing so.
Sharif's return is an explicit challenge to Musharraf's remaining in power, in uniform or not.
When the former prime minister's plane from London touches down tomorrow at the airport just outside the capital, Islamabad, he could face arrest. Musharraf's government has said assorted charges against Sharif could be reinstated, and with them a life sentence, because he is reneging on a pledge to remain in exile in Saudi Arabia for a decade.
But many observers say they believe that Musharraf, whose popularity and political stature are at an all-time low, would be unwilling to risk the unrest that could erupt if he moves against Sharif.
Sharif's right to return was endorsed by Pakistan's reinvigorated Supreme Court, led by a chief justice Musharraf tried to oust in March, a move that generated a nationwide pro-democracy groundswell.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.