If former president Pervez Musharraf makes good on his vow to return to Pakistan to run in historic parliamentary elections after five years of self-exile, he risks at least three undesired consequences: jail, assassination — or public indifference.
A return to power? Highly unlikely, even his supporters say.
Musharraf, who faces several arrest warrants in legal proceedings related to his nine-year autocratic rule, has said he is willing to risk everything to compete in a race that is expected to end in Pakistan’s first democratic transfer of power in its 65-year history.
Some analysts predict his return could stoke a potentially destabilizing confrontation between the judiciary and the military if a court orders his arrest. The betting is that the army that he served in for more than 40 years would defend him against going to jail, even though his popularity among the military is no longer strong.
Then again, Musharraf may receive a collective yawn from everyone except the fevered media if, as promised, he lands Sunday in Karachi on an Emirates Airlines flight from Dubai, his home in exile. Reporters scrambled to reserve seats on the plane, even though the retired general has scrubbed previous avowed returns.
No one really can predict how the Musharraf wild card would affect elections set for May 11, but parlor-game speculation is rampant about the arrival – or not - of the bridge-playing former military leader.
His boosters contend that the public yearns for the stability and better economic times often associated with the Musharraf era, which ended in 2008, because they’ve been hammered by five years of inflation, joblessness and worsening energy shortages under the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
Musharraf, 69, has never run for office, but his ego appears up to the job: He possesses a stubborn certitude about his value to the nation.
“I’m going back to set the country right, if given the chance,” he said in an interview with the France 24 television network earlier this month. Asked whether he would settle for a seat in parliament, he said firmly, “No, no, no . . . I cannot lower my stature.”
“The parties would hate to see Pervez Musharraf come back and for the people to recall what a tremendous government he had run,” said retired Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, who headed the military’s public relations wing under Musharraf.
“Everyone had a job. Everyone seemed to be making money and prospering,” Qureshi said.
Others call that view overly rosy and say Musharraf is taking undeserved credit for a global swell of prosperity that lifted all economic boats. And, say critics, any good Musharraf did was offset by a far darker legacy that included suspending the constitution, arresting political foes and ousting the Supreme Court in an effort to remain in power.
He faced certain impeachment before he stepped down in August 2008. And though his backers argue today that his one-man rule was essentially democratic, that doesn’t quite wash. After all, it started when he seized power from then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who had been duly elected.
Commentators call Musharraf’s decision to return home politically naive, driven by hubris and desire for validation by the voters.
“Musharraf is irrelevant, which is probably his greatest punishment,” said Cyril Almeida, an influential columnist for Dawn, a major English-language daily. “He has been unable to make peace with his own irrelevance.”
But there also appears to be a more universal emotional pull behind his announced return.
“Pervez Musharraf is very homesick and really wants to come back,” said Fawad Chaudhry, a former Musharraf spokesman who has since joined the Pakistan People’s Party. “And I can say with 100 percentage certainty that he is a man who loves his soil; he is a patriotic man.”
Musharraf’s own advisors see his effort as heavily burdened by the baggage of history. He faces allegations of involvement in the 2006 killing of a nationalist leader in restive Baluchistan province. In another case, he is accused of failing to provide sufficient security to former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, assassinated after her return to Pakistan in December 2007.
Musharraf has denied all allegations against him and called them politically motivated. He said on France 24 that the only actual charges he faces are for not appearing in courts here to personally respond.
Political observers say that Musharraf’s new party – the All Pakistan Muslim League — would be lucky to gain a handful of seats in Parliament, largely because it will not garner enough support from other parties to build a meaningful coalition.
“I am not hopeless,” said Qureshi, also a senior leader in Musharraf’s party. “I think it will happen.”
That sounds like wan optimism indeed but is realistic.
A hoped-for Musharraf coalition would include Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician who has stirred a youthful following with his campaign against political business as usual; and Muhammad Tahirul Qadri, a Canadian-Pakistani cleric who rallied tens of thousands of demonstrators in Islamabad recently with slogans against predatory politicians who ignore the privations of the common man.
But neither Khan nor Qadri has yet exhibited a public willingness to pair up with anyone, let alone Musharraf.
The retired four-star general also is unpopular for allying closely with the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — a policy many Pakistanis now see as a mistake that ultimately dragged the country into a still-raging war with a native Taliban insurgency.
For Pakistani leaders, getting thrown in jail, even on ginned up charges, comes with the territory; a far worse threat is the potential for assassination. Islamist militants tried to kill Musharraf at least twice while he was in power.
“He is taking a real risk by returning,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a public affairs commentator. “He knows what happened to Benazir Bhutto when she returned, and he has nowhere near the public adulation Benazir had.”
The Pakistani Taliban asserted responsibility for the attack on Bhutto. The extremist group has also issued warnings about attacking politicians in the upcoming election.
In January 2012, military leaders warned Musharraf against coming back when he announced such plans, according to a Pakistan security official who spoke with customary anonymity. The official declined to comment on whether a similar warning has been issued this time.
Musharraf, 69, has told his loyalists that nothing will prevent his return.
“He said to me, ‘Look, Rashid, I have lived a life and whatever is left, I would like to devote to my country in an effort to get it back on track,” said Qureshi. “If in the process I die, I don’t mind.’”