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Musharraf's Return To Pakistan: Why Now?

Why would a politician who many say faces dim prospects of reviving his career, and who faces possible arrest upon his arrival, choose to return?
Why would a politician who many say faces dim prospects of reviving his career, and who faces possible arrest upon his arrival, choose to return?
Pervez Musharraf is expected to make his return to Pakistan this week, but the former military ruler turned president is unlikely to get the red-carpet treatment after four years of self-imposed exile abroad, mostly in Dubai and London.

Musharraf intends to revive his political career and run for parliament in the country's upcoming elections. His party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, has confirmed that Musharraf will be at the helm as campaigning for the May 11 polls begins.

But Musharraf's return is fraught with risk. The retired four-star general, who stepped down as president in 2008 amid controversy and looming impeachment proceedings, faces a number of criminal charges.

The most serious -- treason -- relates to his role in the 1999 military coup that brought him to power. Another alleges that he failed to provide adequate security for political rival and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. Another links him to the 2006 assassination of Baluch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti.

Repairing His Image

Why would a politician who by most accounts faces dim prospects of reviving his career -- and who faces possible arrest upon his arrival -- choose to return? Pakistan observers suggest a variety of reasons.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, notes that Musharraf gained a reputation as a dictator who tried to silence the media, control the judiciary, and declared several states of emergency in an attempt to maintain power.

Activists of the All Pakistan Muslim League watch in Karachi as Musharraf speaks to reporters about his return from self-imposed exile on March 1.
Activists of the All Pakistan Muslim League watch in Karachi as Musharraf speaks to reporters about his return from self-imposed exile on March 1.
Kugelman says Musharraf may want to remove that stigma by positioning himself as a messiah who arrives just in time to save the country. Pakistan suffers from a dismal economy, dire energy shortages, and widespread militant violence.

"He's very keen on repairing an image that has been largely tarnished," Kugelman says. "So he wants to come back and demonstrate that he's still loyal to Pakistan even though he's been in exile. He still considers himself very much part of the country and wants to demonstrate that by running for office. [Musharraf] also thinks he does have the ability to do what many think is impossible and that's to try to come back and rescue the country from all its travails."

Security Fears Subsided

Musharraf stepped down as president in 2008 after the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e Azam, the party he was allied with, lost parliamentary elections and the newly appointed civilian government threatened him with impeachment. He left the country a year later and never returned, as allegations and charges against him mounted.

Musharraf has said the allegations against him are baseless and that he is prepared to answer the charges against him in court. But when Musharraf previously announced plans to return, most recently in January, his aides advised him to hold off because of insecurity.

According to All Pakistan Muslim League Secretary-General Muhammad Ali Saif, those fears have subsided. Saif has said he does not expect Musharraf to be detained when he returns to Karachi on a public flight and that the authorities will be providing security for him.

That leads to suggestions that Musharraf may believe the timing is right for him to receive a fair trial.

Thanks to Pakistan's unique election system, the party that has the biggest ax to grind against Musharraf -- the Pakistani People's Party (PPP) -- is somewhat out of the picture. The government headed by the PPP has been dissolved and a caretaker government that will hold power until the elections is being decided upon. President Asif Ali Zardari, who co-chairs the PPP, will remain in power and be the biggest threat to Musharraf.

Elections Can't Save Musharraf

Nevertheless, Shuja Nawaz, the author of "Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within," questions whether Musharraf is wise to return.

Nawaz is skeptical that the caretaker administration will have the capacity to provide adequate security for Musharraf. On top of that, Nawaz says, the retired general will still have to contend with serious opposition, including the all-powerful Pakistani Army he once headed.

"The military would be seriously concerned about being drawn into a public debate about the things Musharraf did when he was army chief and president simultaneously," Nawaz says. "It would reopen many of the criticisms of the military that have been rattling around in Pakistan. [Musharraf's return] would draw the military once again in on those debates."

Nawaz, who is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, does not believe the elections can save Musharraf. He says the chances of Musharraf's party, which he formed in exile in 2010, winning a majority and forming the next government in the parliamentary elections are slim.

According to reports, Musharraf himself is expected to run for a parliamentary seat representing the district of Chitral, in the country's northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Fond Memories?

May 11 will mark the All Pakistan Muslim League's electoral debut. The party has little grassroots support and it currently is not represented in provincial or national assemblies.

Adding to the party's woes is that many of its top politicians have left, as have many of Musharraf's former supporters, according to Nawaz. The party's efforts to align itself with established parties, meanwhile, have so far failed.

Even so, Kugelman notes that, given how desperate and hopeless many in Pakistan currently feel, there may be a sizable number of people who look fondly upon Musharraf's early years of rule.

"Generally speaking, he kept the economy afloat and the country, which was certainly affected by violence, was not convolved by violence to the point that it is now," Kugelman says. "I think people will just remember that and -- I don't know if it's accurate or not -- might associate that period of stability with the person that was presiding over the country at that time."

Might Musharraf be seeking to build on those sentiments to restore and hone his image? If so, he apparently has weighed the risk that he could just as easily be painted as the villain.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.