Pakistan: Former President Musharraf Attempts a Comeback

Islamabad, Pakistan – In keeping with a time-tested tradition of Pakistani exiles attempting political comebacks, former President Pervez Musharraf is launching a new political party and plans to return to Pakistan within the next three years.

The timing of Musharraf’s move suggests that he intends to take advantage of the growing unpopularity of the current civilian government, which has been dogged by corruption allegations and harshly criticized for mismanagement of the recent flood crisis.

Of late, Musharraf has sought to increase his public exposure by appearing on television shows, raising funds for flood victims and staging news conferences. He is expected to reveal details of his political platform during the official launch of his All Pakistan Muslim League party in London today and said he plans to take part in general elections scheduled for 2013.

The popular appeal of the man who ruled Pakistan for nine years before being forced to resign in 2008 is hard to determine, but Musharraf himself claims he has large support among young Pakistanis, pointing to his more than 300,000 friends on Facebook.

“Musharraf has genuine support among urban, middle-class, young people who don’t vote,” said Cyril Almeida, an independent political analyst in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s recent history is littered with former political leaders returning from exile to try to reignite their political careers. Former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif both came back to Pakistan in the fall of 2007 after years spent abroad. Bhutto’s renewed political ambitions, however, met an abrupt end with her assassination in December 2007. While Sharif hasn’t been able to run in recent elections because of past criminal convictions, he remains a powerful figure in national politics.

Asif Ali Zardari — Bhutto’s widower — spent more time in jail, on charges that he has consistently deemed political, than overseas. But he completed the most successful of comebacks nonetheless by becoming Pakistan’s president in September 2008.

Musharraf, an army chief of staff who took over from Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999, had a controversial tenure. He made several attempts at rapprochement with Pakistan’s archenemy India and presented himself as a reliable ally of the United States in the fight against terrorism. But at the same time he struggled to contain the rise of Islamist militancy at home and adopted an increasingly confrontational stance toward Pakistan’s judiciary branch and political opposition.

Musharraf’s popularity waned quickly after a popular movement spearheaded by lawyers took to the streets and the controversy surrounding Bhutto’s assassination further stoked public anger against him for perceived lax security at Bhutto’s political rally and an inconclusive murder investigation. Under pressure from his opponents and after threats of impeachment, he resigned from the presidency and moved to London.

Musharraf has kept relatively quiet in recent years, but he resurfaced shortly after the beginning of the recent floods, which have devastated huge swaths of Pakistan over the past two months. He first hosted a fundraiser on a private television channel that raised about $3 million for victims of the flood and has promised to organize a similar fundraising event in the United States along with Angelina Jolie and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

While Musharraf has been praised for his efforts to raise money, he has also faced serious criticism. During his televised appearance, several callers used the opportunity to challenge him on his record as president, and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said Musharraf would have to face the country’s chief justice’s scrutiny when he returns to Pakistan. A spokeswoman for Zardari didn’t return a request for comment.

“Do not kid yourself that something as ephemeral as a cyber-voter is going to transform into a warm welcome should you decide to return here,” the leading English-language newspaper “The News” wrote in an editorial. “You have many questions to answer if you ever do and this time you will not have the luxury of cutting off the callers because you don’t like what it is they are asking.”

Two years after Musharraf’s departure, the government that succeeded him finds itself in a precarious position. National and local leaders have been blamed for poor handling of flood relief operations. Proposed tax reform and budget cuts for universities have led to protests and the government has been criticized for failing to secure the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman who was sentenced by a U.S. court to 86 years in prison on terrorism charges.

Rumors of an imminent political shakeup continue to grow as the powerful Pakistani military continues to pressure the government to improve its governance, but Almeida said he doubted there would be much room for Musharraf in Pakistan’s future political landscape.

“If there isn’t an election soon, the Musharraf splash will fade away,” he said.