LAHORE, Pakistan -- Tens of thousands of cheering, chanting supporters showered former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with rose petals as he triumphantly returned from exile yesterday, posing a thorny new challenge not only to the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, but also to pro-Western opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
Sharif's comeback, just 11 weeks after he was summarily deported by Musharraf, the military leader who once overthrew him, marks a complex new phase in the political turmoil that has gripped the nuclear-armed country, a key U.S. ally, for much of the year.
As Musharraf-decreed emergency rule enters its fourth week, his opponents are jockeying for position, seeking an advantage not only against him but possibly against one another. Sharif is more religiously conservative and less overtly friendly to the West than Musharraf or Bhutto.
"Obviously, it's huge," University of Oregon professor Anita Weiss said of Sharif's return. The author of several books on Pakistan said many Pakistanis see in Sharif "a mature, elder" - she paused for emphasis - "male statesman."
In Lahore, the eastern city that is Pakistan's political nerve center, Sharif's backers sought to muster a display of support comparable to the enormous crowds that turned out to welcome Bhutto last month - before her homecoming procession was shattered by a suicide bombing that killed nearly 150 people.
"Look at all these people," said party leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, shouting to be heard in the airport's cavernous arrival terminal, which was filled with chanting supporters who had surged past police barricades. "And we had only a few days' notice."
Sharif's plans were made final Friday after a meeting with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who flew the former leader here and provided him with a bulletproof Mercedes, which he spurned, for his tumultuous journey into the center of Lahore from the airport.
With fireworks in the sky, supporters danced in front of his convoy, slowing progress to a crawl. Honking cars and buses, with flag-waving supporters dangling from rooftops and out windows, jammed the road long into the night.
Sharif, clad in a traditional white tunic and baggy trousers, topped with a black vest, told supporters he had not made compromises with Musharraf to be allowed back into his homeland.
"My return is not the result of any deal!" he told the crowd at the airport.
Much of the impetus for Sharif's return is thought to have come from Saudi Arabia, which was embarrassed by its role in the previous deportation. Musharraf, who made a 24-hour visit to the kingdom last week, was reportedly told by Saudi officials they were unwilling to risk popularity by appearing to hold Sharif against his will.
Amid the jubilation yesterday, Sharif's followers appeared to ignore that he was an unpopular prime minister in 1999, when Musharraf's coup was widely welcomed. As Pakistan's leader, he was dogged by accusations of corruption and incompetence.
"It shows how much there is hunger for change," said Khalid Butt, editor of the Pakistan Observer.
Sharif's arrival came on the eve of the deadline for registering in parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8. Party officials said Sharif and his wife and brother would all register as candidates, although the party still held open the option of a boycott.
Bhutto, too, prepared to register her candidacy today, signaling that her Pakistan Peoples Party probably was unwilling to sit out the contest. Opposition parties say it would be difficult to hold a free and fair election while the country remains under de facto martial law.
Under the decree, Musharraf suspended the constitution, fired the chief justice and imposed curbs on independent news channels.
Even if Sharif's party agrees to take part in the vote, it was not clear whether he would be allowed to run because he has criminal convictions stemming from his efforts to resist Musharraf's coup against him.
In the wake of Musharraf's coup, Sharif was charged with offenses including treason and hijacking. In a plea bargain, he agreed to go into exile for 10 years. He later said that pledge was made under duress.
Party officials said hundreds of Sharif supporters were rounded up by dawn, hours before his arrival, in a harsh reminder that Musharraf still wields sweeping powers in the wake of his Nov. 3 emergency decree. Police disputed the figures, saying those detained amounted only to dozens.
More than 5,000 people, most of them lawyers, human-rights activists and opposition politicians, were jailed in the days after Musharraf's decree. Many have been released, but new arrests are taking place, and several of the country's most senior lawyers remain in prison.
It was unclear whether Sharif might try to ally himself politically with Bhutto. Some analysts believe Musharraf relented and allowed Sharif to return to diminish Bhutto's role as the main opposition leader.
Sharif's earlier homecoming on Sept. 9 lasted less than four hours. When his plane landed in Islamabad's international airport, he never made it out of the terminal. Musharraf's government sealed off the airport, and waiting government forces bundled Sharif onto a plane back to Saudi Arabia.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.