The South Asia Channel

What does Pervez Musharraf want?

For a fallen figure — one reduced to self-imposed exile in Dubai and London, and dismissed by many as apolitical has-been — Pervez Musharraf sure is hogging an impressive share of the spotlight. In late 2010, after announcing (from London) the formation of his new political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), and revealing ...

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For a fallen figure — one reduced to self-imposed exile in Dubai and London, and dismissed by many as apolitical has-been — Pervez Musharraf sure is hogging an impressive share of the spotlight.

In late 2010, after announcing (from London) the formation of his new political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), and revealing his intention to return to Pakistan to contest the 2013 elections, the former president and army chief hit the lecture circuit. In Washington, he spoke to beyond-capacity and often supportive crowds. Watching him glad hand and back slap people outside the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington last July, after having delivered an address to hundreds of people, I was struck by his resemblance to a U.S. political candidate.

Throughout 2011, he vowed tore turn to Pakistan in March 2012. Yet last week, at an APML rally in Karachi, Musharraf announced to his supporters (via video link from Dubai) that he would make his triumphant return in late January. All this from a disgraced dictator who risks imprisonment the moment he sets foot on Pakistani soil. Indeed, this week several government officials have vowed to arrest him upon his arrival.

It is quite possible, however, that he will be spared such treatment. Reuters has revealed that Musharraf is leaning on the Saudis — with whom he enjoys strong ties, and who wield extensive leverage over the all-powerful Pakistani security establishment — to negotiate for his smooth arrival in Pakistan. Tellingly, several days ago, at the very moment civilian officials were announcing their intention to arrest him, media outlets were reportingthat Musharraf was conferring by phone with Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani about his return, and specifically about the army’s obligation to provide him with security.

Additionally, with the military’s anger at Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari boiling over this week, there is good reason to suspect the army will be willing to help extend a small favor to an army politician. Aiding Musharraf would also allow the armed forces to exact a measure of revenge after the government’s recentfiring of Defense Secretary Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a retired general.

Nevertheless, the army is keenly attuned to Pakistani public opinion and its pro-democracy impulses, and will likely not stand in the way if the courts insist on holding Musharraf accountable — a contingency anticipated by many, including Musharraf’s legal team. While labeling the cases against him as frivolous, Musharraf says he is prepared to report to court to answer the charges against him. His arrest warrants relate to his alleged role in the assassinations of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Baluch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti. Separately, his opponents want him tried for treason for the military coup he staged in 1999. While a conviction on the latter charge would threaten his political career (not to mention his life), a lighter punishment, involving several years of jail time, may well enhance Musharraf’s political bonafides down the road. From Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif, imprisonment has been a rite of passage for Pakistan’s recentgeneration of high-profile politicians.

Setting aside the legal obstacles, what does Musharraf hope to achieve by returning to Pakistan? By all accounts, his political prospects are dim. Not only is he reviled by many for his dictatorial policies during his last few years in power — media crackdowns, Supreme Court sackings, state of emergency declarations — but he is also faulted for the country’s current problems, especially the troubled relationship with Washington (it was Musharraf who acquiesced to the post-9/11 partnership with theUnited States) and the crippling energy crisis. Additionally, many who benefited from Musharraf’s pro-business economic liberalization policies during the initial years of his rule — and would hence be likely to vote for him — are members of the urban,liberal, educated class. Discussions with observers in Pakistan reveal that this demographic is unhappy with the military — a troubling sign for the former general. These Pakistanis are also gravitating, seemingly en masse, to the former cricket star and aspiring politician Imran Khan. The upstart attracts hundreds of thousands of supporters to his rallies — dwarfing the less-than-10,000 turnout at Musharraf’s Karachi jalsa — and one recent poll depicts Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party as by far the most popular in Pakistan.

Such considerations have helped fuel speculation that Musharraf may conclude a political alliance with Khan, particularly since some Musharraf supporters have recently defected to the PTI. Musharraf’s perceived close ties to Washington, however, make a marriage with the PTI — whose platform is rife with criticism of theUnited States — highly unlikely. On Monday, Khan appeared to reject this possibility altogether.

I recently posed the question about Musharraf’s political intentions to Raza Bokhari, who describes himself as a U.S.-based "close friend and confidant" of the former president (though"not a part of his political enterprise"). He repeated the objective articulated by Musharraf at the Karachi rally: The former general will run for a parliamentary seat representing the district of Chitral, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province. (Bokhari disclosed that the Muttahida Quami Movement, the Karachi-anchored political party dominated by ethnic Mohajirs such as Musharraf, had offered to have Musharraf run for a seat in Karachi.) According to Bokhari, Musharraf’s support base is drawn from former nazims — politicians elected to local governments during the Musharraf era who have not had the chance to run for reelection due to Islamabad’s refusal after 2008 to hold local-level polls — and their supporters. Bokhari suggested that this "untapped resource" can carry Musharrafto victory. Many of these nazims, hesaid, have already pledged their support to Musharraf. According to the APML, Pakistan has about 64,000 former nazims in total.

If one acknowledges recent manifestations of public opinion that advantage Musharraf — a Pew poll finding that nearly 80 percent of Pakistanis believe the army is a positive influence on the country; a Gallup Pakistan survey concluding that energy woes are now President Asif Ali Zardari’s fault, not Musharraf’s; and a blog post entitled "50 Reasons Why Pakistan Needs Pervez Musharraf" that garnered 17,000 Facebook "likes" — mentioning "Musharraf" and "victory" in the same breath seems a bit less far-fetched. However, to succeed, Musharraf needs a strong and organized political machine, which the fledgling APML is not. Rumors abound of nazims in KP refusing to throw their support behind the APML because of the party’s inability to fill high-level positions. And a scathing report in The News several weeks back depicted party headquarters in London as divided, demoralized, and struggling financially.

Barring a major surprise –and given the volatility of Pakistani politics, that’s always possible –Musharraf is not about to return to political office. Assuming he does not, many will exhale. Yet others may be disappointed, including some, perhaps, in Washington. In recent days, Musharraf has spoken of the need to patch up ties with the United States. He has also made a pitch rarely heard in Pakistan — calling for better relations with Israel. Pakistan’s last military ruler may be persona nongrata in Pakistan, but he will retain friends in the United States.

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at theWoodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org

Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He can be reached on Twitter @michaelkugelman and at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org @michaelkugelman

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