Two weeks from now, former two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will take the oath of office for the third time, and this time it will be administered by President Asif Ali Zardari, the irony of which should not be lost on anyone.
The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) took turns running the government during the 1990s, creating a rivalry that politicized institutions, allowed personalities to dominate government affairs, and used official resources to settle personal scores. Under Sharif's last government in 1999, Pakistani courts convicted Zardari and his wife Benazir Bhutto of corruption, sentenced both to five years imprisonment, and barred them from holding political office.
The upcoming Sharif-Zardari oath taking ceremony makes the personalized, cutthroat, dramatic, and oft-violent politics of the 1990s seem like ages ago. The first democratic transition of power in the country's history is a solid example of that.
Unfortunately, Pakistan is not that lucky. Just this week in Karachi, gunmen murdered Zahra Shahid Hussain, Vice President of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). PTI blames the killing on political rival the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), pointing to London-based MQM leader Altaf Hussain's call to party workers to protest election results.
Clearly MQM is still in the business of settling scores, along with a host of other individuals and groups that make up the complicated and powerful network of Pakistan's political elite. With Sharif's return to elected politics, many are wondering if he plans to use his stronger position to do the same thing, especially because there is no shortage of scores for a man known to have a very long memory.
Two men in particular come to mind when imagining Sharif's revenge - Pervez Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari. Sharif's approach to both men will clearly indicate how "moderate" his approach to politics has become, as many in his party would have us believe.
Former President Pervez Musharraf is still under house arrest in Islamabad for multiple cases registered against him, none of which are actually directly related to the military coup he engineered against Sharif's government in 1999.
From exile in Saudi Arabia in 2007, Sharif claimed he had no interest in settling scores with Musharraf upon his return to Pakistan later that year; but he still emphasized that Musharraf's tenure was unconstitutional and he should step down. On the campaign trail just a month ago, Sharif showed relative consistency in his remarks when he pardoned Musharraf for a "personal vendetta...but the crimes the former military dictator committed against the nation are too big to be forgiven."
Sharif is likely weighing the pros and cons of letting the courts run their course with Musharraf, or stepping in to engineer some face-saving escape for the retired general in order to avoid ire from the military. Much of the work, however, is already done for him. The courts are already very much set against Musharraf for ousting some of their own senior judges from their positions when he was in power.
If Sharif pushes too hard for due process and rule of law in the Musharraf case, he potentially risks relations with the military, which is protecting Musharraf with augmented security and views resolution of the cases as important for the institution's own reputation.
Which power center would Sharif rather risk ties with - an activist Supreme Court or the military? Perhaps the question is more an issue of which problem is more urgent - settling the score with Musharraf under the guise of due process or sustaining relations with the military in order to "overhaul" national security policies, as Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani discussed earlier this week. The decision seems pretty clear, but can Sharif see it?
Sharif must also seek clarity in his relationship with Zardari. After decades of bitter fighting, exile, and imprisonment, PML-N and PPP found common ground in 2006 when Sharif and Benazir Bhutto formed an alliance to end Musharraf's military rule by signing the Charter of Democracy. The partnership was not meant to be. Bhutto was assassinated by the Taliban in late 2007, which eventually won the PPP a large sympathy vote in the 2008 elections and put the PML-N in the opposition.
Sharif could have used his time in the opposition to settle some personal scores with the PPP-led government. But he did not exact the revenge many expected; instead, the PML-N appeared more cooperative and engaged with the PPP than it had ever been in the past. The two sides could not agree on a caretaker Prime Minister for the political transition, but they adhered to the letter of the law throughout the consultation process, and accepted the final decision made by the Election Commission of Pakistan. Of course, as with Musharraf, Sharif did not have to settle scores since the Supreme Court's targeting of Zardari for corruption was doing the job well enough.
In October of last year, the PPP government agreed to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting that corruption cases against Zardari be re-opened. This seems to have temporarily resolved a three year conflict between the PPP and the courts, but Zardari's vulnerability remains open to legal interpretation. Furthermore, when his presidential term expires in September he will no longer be protected under constitutional immunity.
When Zardari steps down, he could be open to further attacks by the Supreme Court, especially from Chief Justice Ifitkhar Chaudhry, who is known to have his own personal vendetta against Zardari. But Chaudhry himself retires in late December because of mandatory age limits. Between September and December, Zardari will be in a legal limbo that could be helped or hurt by the likes of Sharif. What happens in the Supreme Court after Chaudhry leaves is also a risk factor; it is unclear whether the court will continue the activist agenda laid out by the departing Chief Justice or take a more moderate approach.
Sharif cannot be seen as interfering with the rule of law. At the same time, he must avoid isolating Zardari and the PPP because of their importance to Sharif in the Senate, where PPP maintains a plurality of seats and is needed to pass any legislation introduced by the government.
The unknown factor here is the extent to which the difficult past still shapes Sharif's thinking on Zardari, the PPP, Musharraf, the military, and a host of other relationships. Initial signs from Sharif indicate he has in fact become more moderate, calculated, and conciliatory: his recent meeting with Kayani, visiting political rival Imran Khan in the hospital after a campaign-related injury, and welcoming all parties to join the government.
Perhaps it is better for Sharif to focus on rebuilding these relationships and using them to implement the large mandate he has been given. In the end, victory on these fronts will be the best revenge.
Shamila N. Chaudhary is a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010-2011.
Warrick Page/Getty Images