Exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the man President Pervez Musharraf deposed, is set to return to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia within days, aides said on Friday.
It was not immediately clear whether Sharif, whom Musharraf deposed in a bloodless 1999 coup, would get back before November 26, the last date for filing election nominations and so be able to run for parliament.
Musharraf, under intense criticism at home and abroad for imposing emergency rule three weeks ago, had accepted the return of Sharif during discussions with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, according to a leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.
Overnight the Commonwealth suspended Pakistan's membership of the grouping of mostly former British colonies, in a move that underlined the pressure General Musharraf has been under after using emergency powers to shore up his presidency.
Western governments fear that stifling democracy could play into the hands of Islamist militants threatening nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Politically isolated, Musharraf paid a surprise visit to Riyadh on Tuesday sparking speculation that he was reaching out to his old foe to shore up his support base ahead of a January 8 general election.
Sharif flew to Riyadh overnight from the Red Sea port of Jeddah, where he has stayed since the Pakistani authorities deported him after he tried ending his exile last September.
Nawaz Sharif is meeting Saudi King Abdullah today and will announce his schedule after that. God willing, he will return in a few days, Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, chairman of the Nawaz League as Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League is known, told Reuters.
Diplomats say Saudi Arabia was embarrassed by its complicity in Sharif's exile and had wanted the situation resolved.
Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Sharif's party, said he was expected to return within four or five days.
Musharraf imposed a two-term limit on the prime ministership in 2002, which currently bars both Sharif and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from another term.
Bhutto flew to Islamabad from the southern city of Karachi on Friday, to meet her partty leadership. She made no comment on arrival.
Having spent eight years trying to marginalize Sharif, and having allowed back Bhutto last month, Musharraf appears to have admitted his failure to re-engineer Pakistan's polity, sundered by the coup that ended a decade of chaotic civilian rule.
Aaj Television news channel quoted Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, current leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), as saying that a deal had been worked out for Sharif's return and his party was unconcerned that its former chief was returning.
Hussain was probably putting on a brave face, as many of his party could flock to Sharif's banner, as Musharraf and his intelligence officials appeared to have done a deal.
There is a deal happening between these people, a senior leader in the PML said. You know, these people who are very good at making deals.
Sharif said he had had no contact with Musharraf or his aides during their Saudi visit this week, but he is believed to have met Lieutenant-General Nadeem Taj, head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, who stayed behind in Saudi Arabia a little longer.
A Supreme Court packed with government-friendly judges finally gave Musharraf satisfaction on Thursday, ruling that his October 6 re-election by parliament had been valid.
He is now expected to quit the army and be sworn in for a second five-year term as a civilian, but analysts doubt if he'll last that long with both Bhutto and Sharif back.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), meeting in Uganda on Thursday, suspended Pakistan's membership pending the restoration of democracy and the rule of law in that country, Secretary-General Don McKinnon told a news conference in Kampala.
Musharraf has already started to roll back the emergency, releasing some 5,000 opposition activists and lawyers rounded up after it was imposed on November 3. Private TV channel ARYone World resumed broadcasting on Friday after it was suspended along with a number of others amid stiff media curbs.
Several top judges and lawyers whose interpretation of the law posed the most serious challenge to Musharraf's authority remain either in prison or under house arrest.
(Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by David Fox)