Nawaz Sharif

“I think we have buried the bitterness of the past. We buried it five years ago, maybe a little bit more than that,” Sharif said in an interview at his estate in Raiwind, outside the eastern city of Lahore. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

As this country's political opposition looks for a leader after last week's assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif may be the last man standing.

And his eyes are fixed upon a single goal: to get rid of his archenemy, the man who kicked him out of office in a military coup more than eight years ago, President Pervez Musharraf.

Only a few months ago, Sharif was languishing abroad, a deposed two-time prime minister relegated to fanning the embers of his career in bitter exile. Now, he's back with a vengeance, campaigning for his party in upcoming elections and assuming his role as the only politician left with a credible national profile after Bhutto's slaying, which transformed the political landscape in Pakistan.

Sharif's heightened stature is good news for his supporters, especially here in populous Punjab province, his longtime power base. But it raises hackles elsewhere, including Washington, where the White House regards him as too friendly with Islamic extremists and too hostile toward Musharraf, a close ally in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

Sharif is also a controversial figure at home, where he faces ongoing corruption charges and is barred from running for parliament or becoming prime minister, for now, because of a separate case. But he has been busy consolidating support for his party and playing the senior statesman.

Even his critics acknowledge that he has acted with grace and dignity in the aftermath of the attack on Bhutto, with whom he once carried on a venomous rivalry.

"I think we have buried the bitterness of the past. We buried it five years ago, maybe a little bit more than that," Sharif said Thursday in an interview at his estate in Raiwind, outside the eastern city of Lahore.

In a dark suit and red tie, he sat in a cavernous living room whose entrance was flanked by two stuffed lions, in homage to his nickname, the "lion of Punjab." A massive crystal chandelier hung overhead, sending light refracting through a collection of cut-glass bowls and vases.

"We became friends, Benazir Bhutto and myself," he said. "And we both jointly decided to launch a struggle against dictatorship."

A wealthy industrialist, Sharif, 58, is trying to make common cause with Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, in restoring democratic rule to his homeland. Part of that makes pragmatic sense: His Pakistan Muslim League-N hopes to ride the coattails of the PPP, which is expected to garner a significant sympathy vote in parliamentary polls Feb. 18.

Working together, the two parties might be able to challenge Musharraf or, with a two-thirds majority, attempt to impeach the president.

There is no doubt that Sharif is on a single-minded campaign to rid Pakistan of Musharraf, whose autocratic regime he blames for plunging the nation into turmoil. During his second term as prime minister, from 1997 to 1999, Sharif picked Musharraf as chief of the army, only to see the then-general usurp him, toss him in jail and banish him to Saudi Arabia.

"This one man is playing havoc with the state. This one man is guilty of abrogating the constitution. This one man is guilty of reducing the parliament to a rubber stamp. . . . It is a great shame for me as a Pakistani to see these things happening," Sharif said.

"I stand for democracy; I stand for the rule of law; I stand for independence of judiciary; I stand for freedom of press and the media; I stand for the fundamental rights of the 160 million people of Pakistan," he said. "I think it's a very good stand, a very noble cause."

For some, such ringing liberal democratic rhetoric from Sharif, which he has repeatedly sounded since being allowed to return to Pakistan in November, is laden with irony.

From the time he was chief minister of Punjab in 1985, almost until his ouster from the prime minister's office 14 years later, Sharif owed much of his position to the ties he cultivated with the ruling establishment, including the all-powerful military.

His government was accused of routinely threatening journalists. The police once abducted a well-known editor, allegedly on Sharif's orders, because the publication displeased him. Pakistan's biggest Urdu-language daily, Jang, was at times reduced to publishing single-page editions because of harassment.

Pro-Sharif activists also stormed and ransacked the Supreme Court, whose chief justice, a Sharif foe, eventually felt forced to resign from the bench.

"When he says, 'We stand for freedom of the judiciary; we stand for nonintervention of the military in the government,' he is standing against everything that he himself did," said Muhammad Badar Alam, a political writer.