x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Musharraf has little chance of making political comeback

There is no room for the former Pakistan president, Pervez Musharraf, to crash back into a role in mainstream politics, commando-style.

Pervez Musharraf's return to Paksiatn from the UAE has raised many questions about his agenda and fuelled conspiracy theories in the run-up to elections on May 11. Shakil Adil / AP Photo
Pervez Musharraf's return to Paksiatn from the UAE has raised many questions about his agenda and fuelled conspiracy theories in the run-up to elections on May 11. Shakil Adil / AP Photo

Despite death threats, Pervez Musharraf has returned to Pakistan from Dubai, after more than four years in self-exile. The country's military establishment reportedly asked the government to provide tight security for the former general, who landed in Karachi on March 24.

Mr Musharraf's return raises many questions about his agenda and fuels conspiracy theories in the run-up to elections on May 11.

Has he come back voluntarily, or was he called by the security services? Will he be a polarising force like Pakistani-Canadian cleric and professor Tahirul Qadri, who staged a sit-in outside the parliament building in Islamabad in January to demand electoral reforms?

Mr Qadri's dramatic appearance on the political scene ahead of elections sparked media speculation that a conspiracy was being hatched to derail the democratic process. In this theory, a Musharraf-Qadri nexus reflects an alliance between clerics and the military; both groups have had key roles in politics for many decades.

Mr Musharraf fully supported Mr Qadri in his January protest march, with tens of thousands of his followers, in Islamabad. On the march some protesters carried posters with pictures of Mr Qadri and Mr Musharraf together. At the time Mr Musharraf had told reporters he was seriously mulling a return to Pakistan.

His support for Mr Qadri, who was demanding that a powerful interim government be set up in consultation with the army, was intriguing because it came at a time when an elected government was, for the first time in Pakistan's history, completing its full term in office.

This set the stage for a smooth transition from one civilian government to the other - a new phenomenon in a country with a history of frequent military interventions derailing the democratic process. The military has ruled for half of Pakistan's independent history.

Mr Qadri was also backed by pro-establishment political parties, the recent rise of which could provide Mr Musharraf a place in politics. One theory is that Mr Qadri had been assigned to prepare the ground for a return to a level-playing field for Mr Musharraf before his return.

Mr Qadri exploited anti-government sentiments that are strong after five years in which major grievances have not been redressed, amid corruption and bad governance. Many people believe Pakistan was better between 2001 and 2008, when it was run by Mr Musharraf.

His government coined the slogan "Pakistan first" and promoted enlightened moderation to check religious extremism.

Had Mr Qadri succeeded in implementing his agenda, elections would have been postponed and Mr Musharraf would have been the choice of the establishment to head up an interim administration for at least two years. But the country's powerful judiciary and the anti-establishment parties united to prevent any such result.

Pakistan is not what it was when Mr Musharraf left in 2009. Under Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the judiciary has gained in power and popularity. It is judges, not generals, who now call the shots in all the powerful institutions.

This is almost hard to believe, when several judges, including Chief Justice Chaudhry, were sacked and put under house arrest in November 2007 when Mr Musharraf assumed emergency rule.

Mr Musharraf appeared before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, to face charges of high treason for imposing emergency rule and arresting the judges. On Tuesday, the court adjourned the hearing until next Monday

How will the military establishment react to the trial of its former leader? Will it allow the court to set a precedent by punishing a former military dictator?

One thing that is plain now is that there is simply no room for Mr Musharraf to crash back into a role in mainstream politics, commando-style.

He is at the mercy of the judiciary, as he will have to face several serious charges. The web of legal actions involves cases such as the 2006 killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a veteran Baloch leader, and his alleged involvement in the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the two-time prime minister and wife of President Asif Ali Zardari.

There is also the Lal Masjid case. The mosque's former chief cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, has asked the Supreme Court to put Mr Musharraf on the Exit Control List, on the grounds that he is a suspect in the Lal Masjid slaughter of July 2007.

Hundreds of students died at the school after a 12-day standoff between soldiers and students and supporters at the hard-line mosque.

Outside the courts, Mr Musharraf also faces threats from Baloch insurgents and heirs of Nawab Bugti. He is also on the hit-list of Islamist extremists because, after the attacks on the US of September 11, 2001, he launched a clampdown on militant organisations in Pakistan.

In a video message, a leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan reportedly said: "we have prepared a special squad to send Musharraf to hell. There are suicide bombers, snipers, a special assault unit and a close combat team".

Mr Musharraf also faces archrivals in domestic politics. First among these is Nawaz Sharif, who was forced by Mr Musharraf to live outside the country for nearly a decade.

Overall, then, Mr Musharraf's chances of a political comeback appear to be minimal in the presence of a host of rivals, critics and sworn enemies, from the judiciary to suicide bombers.


Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst based in Pakistan