Why Musharraf is risking a return to Pakistan

Pakistani prosecutors say former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf will be arrested the moment he returns, but the Army might prevent his arrest.

Jumana El Heloueh/Reuters
Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf speaks during an interview with Reuters in Dubai January 8. The exiled former president said on Sunday he would return to Pakistan later this month to lead his recently formed party in campaigning for a parliamentary election, despite the possibility of his arrest and concern over his security.

Former Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has said he will return to the country to contest elections, despite an announcement by prosecutors that he will be arrested for the killing of former premier Benazir Bhutto upon arrival.

Speaking via telephone from Dubai to supporters in the city of Karachi on Sunday night, General Musharraf, who led Pakistan between 1999 – 2008, said he would return late this month. "I will take the risk and put my life at stake for the people of Pakistan," he said, referring to attempts by political opponents to scare him away.

Mr. Musharraf’s return could create a fresh stand-off between the civilian government and Pakistan’s Army, who, while not openly supporting their former leader, would be ill-disposed toward seeing him humiliated in court.

On Saturday, state prosecutors said they planned to detain Musharraf on charges that he did not provide adequate security to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2008.

Musharraf's electoral chances

Even if Musharraf manages to avoid arrest, analysts are skeptical about his electoral chances.

Cricket player-turned-politician Imran Khan is making considerable gains and has swept up many of the retired general’s former allies and supporters, particularly those voters for whom tackling corruption is a major priority.

He also faces a hurdle from the judiciary, with whom he was a conflicted relationship. His efforts to fire senior judges while he was in office galvanized a lawyers' movement against him that eventually forced his resignation in 2008.  

“At least procedurally he’ll have to go through the courts, and I don’t think the judiciary will be amenable toward him,” says retired Gen. Talat Masood, an analyst. “He’ll be creating problems for the military leadership and creating embarrassment. I don’t think he’s listening to their advice at the moment."

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari is currently under pressure from the military on allegations that he was responsible for a secret memo sent to Washington seeking its help in preventing a coup, and is likely to go to polls later this year according to media reports.

Common ground

While Pakistan’s political parties fight it out among each other, the return of Musharraf, who was almost universally disliked at the time of his departure, could create some common ground.

“We look forward to him coming back and facing the law for the deeds he has committed. He has twice abrogated the constitution, he … has put Balochistan on fire, demolished the judiciary and censored the media, and under his rule Pakistan became a haven for suicide bombers,” says Ahsan Iqbal, a senior opposition lawmaker from the Pakistan Muslim League-Noon (PML-N) Party.

The key to understanding Musharraf’s desire to return despite the odds is the man’s belief that he alone can "save" Pakistan, says columnist Ayaz Amir. During his speech to supporters on Sunday, Musharraf alluded to strong economic growth and foreign investment during his tenure, promising to return the country to the path of prosperity while dismissing rising star Imran Khan as a political novice.

“His electoral chances are not very bright, but he thinks the people of Pakistan are waiting for him and that he’s the Messiah.  He’s a person who is really a part of Pakistan’s yesterday, but he thinks he’s the future of Pakistan,” says Mr. Amir.

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