Tom and Jerry in Pakistan

The political arena of Pakistan has always been something of a cat and mouse game - volatile and marked by stops and starts on the democratic front. No sooner does a leader come to power than he begins working to settle scores with the previous regime.

This is what happened when Army Chief General Pervez Musharaf overthrew Nawaz Sharif's government and took over control of the country in 1999, first as a military dictator and later as President, when a quasi-democratic government made unprecedented concessions of power to protect his seat.

When Musharaf took control, Nawaz Sharif, then Prime Minister, was soon arrested and sent to jail for having forbidden Musharaf's airplane to land at Karachi airport. That was when the battle between the new President and Sharif's family started in earnest. After he was sentenced to life imprisonment by the courts, Sharif cut a deal in which he received a Presidential pardon in return for leaving Pakistan for ten years. Saudi Arabia apparently brokered this deal and Sharif stayed in Saudi Arabia for considerable time after that.

Over the ensuing decade Musharraf's rule has been relatively smooth sailing, with a benign opposition and a relatively disinterested public. He has also been praised for his liberalism, "enlightened moderation" and relative freedom of press.

This changed recently, with major erosion in his popularity, as some of his strategic moves have backfired on him. While preparing for presidential elections he attempted to remove the country's Chief Justice - who he suspected might rule against his bid for re-election. This single action created a surge of public opinion against him marked by huge peaceful rallies in support of the Chief Justice. The Supreme Court later termed the removal unlawful and reinstated the Chief Justice.

This was the first large-scale public reaction in eight years to Musharraf's policies and it hit him hard. The interesting thing about this upheaval was that it was the grassroots which reacted first. The political parties, initially left behind, only then rode the wave of public opinion.

Subsequently, events such as the reaction on the mishandled raid on Red Mosque weakened him and his alliances appear to be increasingly shaky, if not crumbling.

With general elections and Presidential election round the corner, the current dip in public opinion about Musharraf has brought the opposition into play. In this new scenario, Musharaf has been in dialogue with Pakistan People's Party leader Benazir Bhutto in order to make his alliance stronger and make sure that no one comes into his way to become the President of the country in coming elections. Benazir, living in self-imposed exile appeared eager to enter these talks and has come across as a weak opposition.

Nawaz Sharif, however, was completely ignored in this renewed dialogue with the opposition, and so he prepared for his comeback.

Assuming that public opinion was against Musharraf and in the absence of any desire by the president to cut a deal with him, he decided that once he landed in Pakistan at the end of his exile, he could surely win back the hearts and could use Red Mosque and the controversy over the attempt to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar's as a weapon against Musharaf's government.

This was the scene set on September 10, 2007, when Nawaz finally landed in Pakistan, after winning an appeal to Supreme Court for his right to come back as a full-fledged Pakistani citizen.

Immediately, however, he was sent back to Saudi Arabia within four hours, allegedly under the surveillance of Saudi and Pakistani intelligence. His alternative was jail.

On the day he landed Islamabad had been sealed and a curfew was put into place. Businesses suffered and schools were closed. All flights to Islamabad had either been cancelled or delayed. Scores of political workers were arrested to avoid a welcome for the returning leader and heavy contingents of police and security forces were deployed.

Public opinion to the recent drama is mixed. Although many were happy about Nawaz's return, some were frightened about the crackdown they knew would result.

When he left again, his supporters felt let down -- that he should have stayed back in the country in the first place and appealed to the courts against his sentence rather than enjoying the luxuries in Saudi Arabia.

Musharraf is coming under sharper criticism, however, for over-reacting to Nawaz's attempt to return to Pakistan.

The showdown is far from over. Nawaz's wife, who led a brief struggle against Musharraf in 1999 and 2000, has recently vowed to come back herself and take up the fight. And despite their recent dialogue, Benazir Bhutto still says she'll contest him for the presidency.

The next few weeks will be extremely important. The more fair and free the elections are, and the more decisive the results, the better the prospects are likely to be for Pakistan and the region as a whole.