Return of an Erstwhile King
As Reported By The Economist
PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, a former army dictator and president of Pakistan, returned from London on March 24th to the country he once commanded, after an absence of more than four years. He finds not a trace of the power and significance he once wielded.
He came, he said, to contest elections, scheduled for May 11th, and “to save Pakistan”. Though the country could certainly do with rescuing, Mr Musharraf faces stiff competition among those offering themselves as saviour. They include a former prime minister and his bitter enemy, Nawaz Sharif, and a notable cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan. Meanwhile, the outgoing government of the Pakistan Peoples Party achieved little, but its re-election is not out of the question.
A small crowd of supporters gathered at Karachi airport to welcome Mr Musharraf. “I cry when I see the state of Pakistan today,” he blustered. The rally his people had planned that evening had to be cancelled, apparently for security reasons. That may have been just as well: participants looked likely to be few.
Mr Musharraf lacks popularity and a political base. He also faces threats from the Pakistani Taliban and allied extremist groups. In office, he survived two well-planned assassination attempts. He will now have nowhere near the level of security that saved his life then. The Pakistani Taliban threatens a special squad that will “send Musharraf to hell”. When Benazir Bhutto returned from exile to Pakistan in October 2007, extremists bombed her motorcade after it left Karachi airport, killing around 140 people. She was unhurt in that attack. But a suicide bomber at a rally assassinated her two months later.
Mr Musharraf seized power in 1999 after the prime minister at that time, Mr Sharif, tried to sack him as army chief. He ruled Pakistan, first just as a general and later as president, until 2008, when rising unpopularity forced him to hold elections that his party lost.
He also faces a series of court cases in Pakistan and was careful to arrange pre-arrest bail before arriving. He is accused in the Bhutto murder case (though no direct evidence implicating him has emerged), as well as over the killing of a tribal leader, Akbar Bugti. And then he faces charges of treason, too, for staging his coup in 1999.
It was under Mr Musharraf that extremists turned on the state, after the attacks of September 11th 2001 led him to forge an alliance with America. Yet Mr Musharraf never turned on all militant groups, some of which operated with a degree of latitude. The Pakistani Taliban even seized a territory in the heart of the country, Swat.
Pakistan enjoyed a period of rapid economic growth during his time in office, but it was a bubbly time for Pakistan, and the bubbles burst as Mr Musharraf was leaving office. At least he managed to keep prices under control, especially for food.
Mr Musharraf is a big name internationally, but within Pakistan he now seems an irrelevance. His presence may become a sideshow in this election season.
More watched now will be the campaign of Imran Khan, who staged a huge rally on March 23rd in Lahore, Pakistan’s second city. After suddenly growing wildly popular in late 2011, with a promise of a new politics to break the established and corrupt two-party system, Mr Khan has lost much momentum in recent months. His showing in Lahore was an attempt to regain the initiative—and it proved that he can still pull a crowd. Mr Khan will win votes across the country but, with Pakistan’s first-past-the-post system, it may not translate into many seats.
This election, assuming it takes place, will mark the first time that one elected government completes a full term and hands power over to another. That is something, but the job of saving Pakistan remains, as ever, up for grabs.