On Wednesday, dressed in civilian clothes, former Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf announced from Hong Kong that he intends to return home as head of a new political party called the All Pakistan Muslim League. He is reportedly eyeing the posts of prime minister and president.
He says he has a strong following among Pakistan’s silent majority: the progressive-minded, economically mobile, urban, and urbane younger sections of society. As proof, he points to his 300,000 Facebook followers mainly aged between 18 and 34. “Therefore, I know that it is the youth who are yearning for change,” he said Wednesday.
Already, supporters of Mr. Musharraf are reaching out to people on the street. As they collect funds in his name for survivors of the catastrophic floods that rocked Pakistan last month, they hoist pictures of him in civilian clothes. It's a rather new look for him, but Musharraf has experienced many incarnations: from coup-leader, to self-proclaimed chief executive of Pakistan, to popularly elected president-general, to disgraced president thrown out of power, to a man in self-imposed exile.
Capitalizing on floods fallout
This time, Musharraf plans to start a campaign to join the 2013 elections within the parameters of parliamentary democracy. His plans come at a time when his rival political parties – the ruling Pakistan Peoples’ Party and the PML, which rules the country’s powerful central Punjab province – face sharp criticism for their handling of recent devastating floods.
“He is trying to convert supporters by presenting [the flood response] as a failure of political forces domestically and at the same time waiting to play his cards internationally, especially in the Middle East and America, in case any political vacuum is created,” says analyst Najam Sethi.
Political rivals say his Musharraf's newfound Internet popularity won't get him far. “He might be a political leader in the virtual world of Facebook. But the real political field is on the streets of this poverty ridden country, and that he hasn’t faced yet,” says Nihal Hashmi, a central leader of former premier Nazwaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML). Mr. Hashmi points out that in one of his earlier incarnations, Musharraf reached out to the same political elite that he now claims to revile.
May face legal prosecution
Musharraf has many enemies and difficult legal and political hurdles to cross. He's had multiple death threats for his role in mixing state institutions with militancy. At the end of his rule when he fired the chief justice, he triggered severe backlash. He then declared emergency rule and imposed censorship rules on the media – eventually leading to his ouster.
Those actions have not been forgotten. “He will have to face powerful judiciary, and the two rival political forces of ruling Pakistan Peoples’ Party and Nawaz Sharif’s PML, and the leading media houses,” says Mr. Sethi, the analyst and editor-in-chief of Pakistani newsweekly The Friday Times.
Musharraf himself acknowledges the opposition he faces back home. "There are elements opposed to me, political elements," he told reporters during his announcement Wednesday. He shrugged off the possibility of facing legal prosecution upon his return. “I am very confident nothing can happen,” he said.
What does the Army say about a possible return?
Sethi says the military is unlikely to go after Musharraf. “The Army is silent and will remain silent,” he says.
Rashed Rahman, editor of the English language Daily Times, agrees. “The military under the new leadership of Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani is very clear on domestic issues. It is not intervening in political matters,” he says.
Retired Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, a close aide to Musharraf, says he's optimistic about Musharraf's prospects on returning to office. He stresses that Musharraf is returning as “reformist” and a “political figure,” not a military ruler.
“Just three days ago, during TV telethon of General Pervez Musharraf, we have collected 250 million rupees [about $3 million for flood victims]. The whole country is in welcome mode for him because they have given up on corrupt politicians of the country,” he says. “In my opinion a considerable percentage of military officers wish him back… but obviously the military doesn’t expose its political leaning.”
Sources close to Musharraf say he plans to launch the All Pakistan Muslim League and publish its manifesto among his supporters in London via a press conference on Oct. 1. Once that's been put out, his return date will be finalized.
“If he returns, it's not going to be risk free," adds Mr. Rahman, the newspaper editor. "The political stakes are high because he doesn’t have a political party structure or working cadre."