The return from self-imposed exile of Pakistan’s former president and Army chief, Pervez Musharraf, has sparked little excitement in the country he ruled for nine years.
Mr. Musharraf left Pakistan as a retired general, but returns as a politician whose party is planning to contest parliamentary elections this May while he has a number of legal notices to respond to. While Musharraf says that he has returned to "save Pakistan," analysts believe that the former Army chief will have a "minimal" impact, if any, on the elections.
After several years of living in exile in London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Musharraf announced that he would come back to Pakistan after the parliament – which threatened to impeach him in 2008 – completed its term and a caretaker government was in place. This was largely met with skepticism, given that his return has often been delayed. He arrived in Karachi on Sunday and spoke briefly with supporters amassed at the airport.
“I have come back for the poor people,” he said, despite the threats to his life. “I will be addressing rallies all over Pakistan, please come and listen to me again.” His planned rally on Sunday evening in Karachi was abandoned after the provincial police canceled a no-objection certificate issued to his party for using the venue.
In 2010, Musharraf formed a political party called the All Pakistan Muslim League while living in London. But his career as a politician in exile has not been successful. Several members left the party after being disillusioned by Musharraf’s reluctance to come back to Pakistan. His party has little infrastructure or not much of a membership base, and has not been an active political force to reckon with. Party spokesperson Aasia Ishaque said that “Musharraf is a brave man” for opting to return and would be given a "grand welcome" by his supporters.
Musharraf and the All Pakistan Muslim League say they will be participating in the May 11 polls. However, analyst Ikram Sehgal says Musharraf would have a “minimal” impact on the elections. The insurgent politician capturing attention isn't Musharraf, but cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. According to Mr. Sehgal, “The two main parties [the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz] are worried about Imran Khan coming up in the stretch before the elections.”
Columnist Cyril Almeida says that “Musharraf the politician today evokes the memory of Imran Khan from a decade ago: a high-wattage name, lots of media coverage, and absolutely no impact on the electorate. Perhaps the best punishment for Musharraf is the one he's chosen for himself: to court a voting public that has entirely moved on from the man and his era.”
Sehgal adds: “At the end of the day, Musharraf’s supporters – with or without his consent – will end up supporting Imran Khan."
While Musharraf was once an ally of the United States in the fight against Al Qaeda, his appeal has waned at home and abroad. Influential figures in Pakistani society, politics, and the military that used to back Musharraf have found other candidates to support, including Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.
Despite this, Sehgal says that Musharraf would get a “warm welcome in Karachi,” the country's business capital.
“The business community likes him,” he says. Pakistan's growth rate picked up post-9/11, after Musharraf led the country into an alliance with the US in the war in Afghanistan.
Musharraf also enjoys good relations with Karachi's dominant political party, says Sehgal. “The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) owes him big because he helped their revival after the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz targeted them in turn.” In what could be construed as a tacit form of support, the MQM’s chief Altaf Hussain – who also lives in exile in London – said on Saturday that the former president had a legal right to return to Pakistan and participate in politics. While the MQM supported Musharraf for a major part of his rule, it has denied reports that it was planning to collaborate with the All Pakistan Muslim League for the elections. The Pakistani media has also speculated that the Saudi royal family has told the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz – whose leadership it has a strong relationship with – not to create any trouble for Musharraf.
Unlike other politicians that are busy holding rallies, courting candidates, and preparing for the polls, Musharraf has a mountain of legal challenges ahead. Pakistan’s courts have ordered arrest warrants to be issued for Musharraf owing to his absence from several criminal proceedings, including of the murders of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti. In 2011, the court hearing the late Ms. Bhutto’s murder trial ordered the confiscation of Musharraf’s top assets.
Ishaque said that Musharraf was returning to the country to “face all the charges against him.” His lawyers managed to stave off the prospect of their client being arrested on arrival by obtaining preventive bail. His arrival, Sehgal says, will also be an “embarrassment for the Army,” who “would not like to see him being treated like a common criminal.”
“His return,” Mr. Almeida says, “seems more a case of a former dictator who can’t quite accept his own irrelevance than someone who has genuine ideas about how to move Pakistan forward, or even out of the mess he helped create.”
Musharraf came to power in a military coup in 1999, overthrowing the government led by Pakistan Muslim League’s Nawaz Sharif. At the time, he said that the coup was not "martial law," but a "return to democracy." The nine years of his rule – during which he served as the head of the Army, a self-styled chief executive, and later as president – were marked by the war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, a deadly spike in home-grown militancy, and an insurgency movement in Balochistan Province sparked by the murder of Mr. Bugti, a tribal leader.
Almeida notes that there is little hope for Musharraf to carve a niche for himself in politics. “While he is in Pakistan, he will never be far from the headlines and will be a regular feature on political talk shows. Beyond that, it’s hard to see how he can influence politics or policy. The most powerful argument against Musharraf: When you’ve had a decade in power already, what great, new contribution can he possibly come up with?”
(Musharraf visited the Monitor's Boston offices and gave an extended interview in 2002. The transcript highlights the promises and plans made by the general-president at the early stages of his rule.)
* Editor's note: The subheadline was updated to correct the number of years Musharraf ruled.