Ex-President of Pakistan to End Exile in Bid to Regain Influence

A man stood guard in Thursday in Karachi, Pakistan, at the campaign office of Pervez Musharraf. Security on his return is a critical concern.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani military lore is obsessed with the romance of the daredevil commando, parachuting into hostile territory and taking the fight to the enemy despite daunting odds.

So it is, in a manner of speaking, with Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s onetime military ruler and a former commando, as he prepares to return from exile this Sunday, in the face of stiff and perhaps violent opposition, to marshal his fledgling political party for the general election on May 11.

After fours years living between London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Mr. Musharraf insists that he is going home, and he has said which flight he is to take into Karachi.

But until recently, many here were skeptical that Mr. Musharraf, 69, a retired general, was serious. He has promised to return from exile several times, only to change his mind at the last minute, citing a “bad environment.”

This time, there are signs that he means business and is ready to take a second shot at political influence, if not outright power.

His supporters have hired a team of bodyguards that includes retired commandos, have paid for an expensive television advertising campaign heralding his return and have bought several new bulletproof vehicles.

Mr. Musharraf himself has admitted that if he does not return this time his political ambitions may be finished. “If I don’t go now, then when will I go?” he told India’s NDTV television station on March 14. “So it is now or never.”

Even if he makes it, a phalanx of challenges await him. First among them is security: the Pakistani Taliban and Baluch nationalists, both of which tried to assassinate Mr. Musharraf while he was in power, have pledged to redouble their efforts if he returns.

In the courts, he faces criminal charges, and possible jail time, in relation to three cases, including the death of Benazir Bhutto, the former opposition leader, who was killed in 2007 while Mr. Musharraf was president. He has dismissed those cases as “concocted,” but they could ultimately be decided by his old nemesis, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry — the judge whom Mr. Musharraf tried, and failed, to depose in 2007.

The favorite to win the coming election, meanwhile, is Nawaz Sharif — the former prime minister whom Mr. Musharraf toppled in 1999 before dispatching him into exile in Saudi Arabia a year later. For a time, Mr. Sharif regularly called for Mr. Musharraf to be tried — and hanged — for treason.

Even the army is thought to feel lukewarm about its longtime supreme commander. Some senior generals privately blame Mr. Musharraf for the country’s woes, including his once cozy relationship with the United States.

“This places them in an awkward position,” said Talat Masood, a retired three-star general. “They would have been much more comfortable if he stayed abroad.”

So why, then, is Mr. Musharraf so keen to come home? Some say he is simply tired of life abroad.

“I feel he’s homesick,” said Fawad Chaudhry, a former Musharraf aide. “He really wants to come back.”

For others, though, the high-stakes return is an act of characteristic arrogance — a rash impulse born out of some sense of messianic destiny. “He still thinks he has a big role to play, and that’s his mistake,” said Mr. Masood, who at one time was a Musharraf confidante. “He thinks history will judge him as having been a great leader.”

Still, Mr. Musharraf and his supporters — including industrialists, wealthy members of the Pakistani diaspora and a handful of politicians — assert that a comeback is no long shot.

On Thursday the smell of fresh paint wafted through the Islamabad headquarters of Mr. Musharraf’s party, the All-Pakistan Muslim League. A senior party official, Ahmad Raza Khan Qasuri, insisted that his leader still had something to offer. “The politicians of this country have no ideas, except to throw muck at one another. President Musharraf is different,” he said.

On Friday, his lawyers obtained pre-emptive bail from a court in Karachi, allowing him to return to Pakistan without fear of immediate arrest. He has also been to Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to perform the Umrah religious pilgrimage, but more likely to draw diplomatic support from influential Saudi officials, according to Pakistani news reports.

He may also have smoothed things over with his old rival, Mr. Sharif. Rumor in political and diplomatic circles this week had it that the two recently held a private meeting in Dubai. And in a television interview this week, Mr. Sharif struck a strikingly conciliatory tone on the subject of Mr. Musharraf.

“The gentleman is quiet as a lamb,” said Mr. Qasuri, the Musharraf party official, referring to Mr. Sharif.

Despite all the preparation, it is unclear how much actual support Mr. Musharraf can muster. He will, in effect, be throwing himself at the mercy of voters.

Mr. Qasuri said he would personally contest three seats simultaneously — a quirk of the Pakistani system — in Karachi, Lahore and in the mountainous northwestern district of Chitral, where residents are grateful for a tunnel cutting through the mountains that was built during Mr. Musharraf’s tenure.

Experts, though, say he will be lucky to win even a few seats. “Musharraf’s political career ended long ago,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political scientist.

And few believe that Mr. Musharraf’s homecoming will signal a return to the bad old days of military coups in Pakistan: the military’s standing has been badly bruised in recent years. But some do fear the old general could inadvertently upset the transition from one civilian government to another.

An acrimonious court prosecution, for example, could wreak “quite substantial disruption on a very fragile political system,” said Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad.

Source: NYTimes


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