Pakistani political experts say the country's president, General Pervez Musharraf, faces a decidedly uncertain future a day after the Supreme Court ended his chief rival's seven-year exile. With elections expected later this year, analysts say President Musharraf's once absolute hold on power is now up for grabs. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports.

Political experts say Thursday's ruling is a setback for the embattled president, General Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif can end his seven-year exile, and the opposition leader says he will return home shortly.

Mr. Sharif heads a center-right political party and also leads a six-party opposition alliance.

Political analyst and former senator Shafqat Mahmood says Mr. Sharif's return would considerably weaken the president, just months before the election due later this year.

""Apart from whatever support Sharif commands, the simple fact is Musharraf is very unpopular in the country right now," said Mahmood. "So it will be a combination of support for Sharif and anti-Musharraf feeling which will be combined together to create problems and difficulties for Musharraf."

The president ousted Mr. Sharif in a 1999 military coup. Mr. Musharraf has served as both president and army chief ever since.

But public support for Mr. Musharraf is at an all time low and the president faces challenges from several quarters.

With Thursday's ruling, Mr. Sharif joins another exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in vowing a return to Pakistani politics.

Both demand the right to contest year-end parliamentary elections.

The Supreme Court has also emerged as an obstacle to Mr. Musharraf's military rule.

Political analyst Hasan Askari says that after nearly a decade of unquestioned support, the court has increasingly ruled against the government in recent months.

"It adds uncertainty to Musharraf's political future," said Askari. "For the first time an institution is working independently of the military, which is a major shift. It builds pressure on him and strengthens the opposition."

The president tried unsuccessfully to replace the court's outspoken chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry earlier this year.

But the judge refused to back down and helped lead a series of massive pro-democracy marches before being officially reinstated last month.

Nevertheless, Mr. Sharif's legal standing is still far from secure.

The former prime minister was convicted of treason among other crimes in 2000 and was sentenced to life in prison before accepting exile to Saudi Arabia instead.

Several government officials have suggested he could face new legal challenges and possible imprisonment if he does return.