ISLAMABAD // Most Pakistanis were too busy contemplating the destruction wrought by recent floods to care that Pervez Musharraf, the former military ruler, has announced his intention to contest the next general election.
Apathy is the least potent of the emotions evoked by Mr Musharraf, who was a Jekyll-and-Hyde authoritarian leader for eight years until resigning in August 2008 to avoid impeachment. In two of Pakistan's four provinces, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, he would be at severe risk of assassination without the presidential security he enjoyed. Sparsely populated Balochistan has become an almost no-go zone because of the 2006 killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the province's elder statesman, allegedly on the orders of Mr Musharraf.
Mr Bugti, a former chief minister, had rebelled against military interference in the province's complex tribal political and administrative systems, which date back to British colonial rule. Mr Musharraf now denies giving the order. However, some say he issued a statement that night, from a hill resort near Islamabad, in which he congratulated the military units that carried out the execution order.
The wave of public disgust provoked by the statement necessitated a hasty retraction the morning after. The reaction in Balochistan has been so severe that military officials privately concede that the government has lost its writ there, and that secession from Pakistan is a realistic, long-term threat. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the adjacent federally administered tribal areas, Mr Musharraf is reviled for policies that led to a protracted slaughter of ethnic Pashtuns.
Initially, he provoked dismay by withdrawing Pakistan's support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks. That is now a fading memory, overwhelmed by his decision to order army commandoes to storm a militant seminary in Islamabad in July 2007. His government said 154 people died, but intelligence sources have said the figure is above 600. Former ministers from the Musharraf government have since questioned the decision to raid the seminary, saying the militant clerics had hours earlier agreed to surrender.
Pakistanis remember with fury the indiscriminate killing of seminary students, many of them orphans and girls from Swat valley. Widely perceived as an attempt to prop up his failing administration, the operation sparked the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Swat-based insurgency that by 2009 threatened the survival of the Pakistani state. While the TTP threat to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has receded, the tribal areas remain virtually ungovernable. Battles between the military and militants, and vengeful terrorist reprisals, continue to claim hundreds of lives every month.
Mr Musharraf is equally disliked across most of central Punjab, Pakistan's economic and political heartland, and the recruiting ground for 90 per cent of military officers. Mr Musharraf's popularity declined significantly there after he tried in March 2007 to sack the chief justice of the supreme court. A poll published by the International Republican Institute in July 2008, a month before Mr Musharraf resigned, found that 85 per cent of Pakistanis wanted him to step down. He was found to be the country's least popular man.
If Mr Musharraf were to attempt a return to active politics, he would find few allies. The military has spent much of the past two years distancing itself from his rule. The judiciary, led by the chief justice he tried to sack, has declared him an absconding criminal suspect. A July 2009 ruling by the supreme court declared the coup staged by Mr Musharraf in October 1999 an act of treason. Under backdoor pressure from Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the army chief, the court stopped short of ordering the government to draw up treason charges.
Many opposition politicians have made clear their intention to file petitions with the supreme court seeking his prosecution for treason should he return. Such charges would carry the possibility of the death penalty. The Pakistani media, which played a major role in his decline, would swarm like piranhas if he were to return. The politicians Mr Musharraf worked with, and whose support he would seek to enlist to provide an electoral platform, would run for cover, but eagerly watch the spectacle.