Why General Musharraf Still Matters in Pakistan

Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf speaks during a press conference in east London on January 19, 2012. Musharaf sai
Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf speaks during a press conference in east London on January 19, 2012. Musharaf said on January 19 he would consult with members of his party before deciding whether to delay his return from exile later this month. AFP PHOTO / CARL COURT (Photo credit should read CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistan's former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, is ending his four-year old self-imposed exile on March 24th by traveling back to the country's largest city of Karachi in order to participate in the upcoming general elections tentatively scheduled for May, 2013. Musharraf had seized power in a coup in 1999, promised to restore the civilian rule within three years but eventually backtracked from his commitment. His partnership with the United States in the war on terrorism immediately presented Musharraf as a "legitimate dictator" at home and an indispensable "enlightened moderate Muslim leader" on the international front.

Musharraf was ousted from power in 2008 after the Pakistan People's Party (P.P.P.) of Asif Ali Zardari, the current Pakistani president, outvoted Musharraf's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (P.M.L.-Q). At the time of losing political power, Musharraf had significantly lost public popularity and also the trust of the United States as a reliable ally in the war on terrorism. In his memoirs, President George W. Bush complained that Musharraf "would not or could not fulfill all his promises."

However, Musharraf , after stepping down as Pakistan's president, did not end up as a disgraced or a fully vanquished general. In fact, he received a rare ostentatious guard of honor before he exited Pakistan. Such a warm farewell always kept Musharraf's hopes alive that one day he would return to his country. During his four-year exile, the General lived in London and, in June 2010, launched the All Pakistan Muslim League (A.P.M.L.), his one-man-band-like political party.

So what does Musharraf today mean for Pakistan and what is going to be his impact on the outcome of the elections? Of course, General Musharraf is not Benazir Bhutto, the twice elected former prime minister who was assassinated in 2008, who will be greeted by millions of admirers at the Karachi Airport. In a recent interview with Indian news channel, NDTV, Musharraf said he did not believe in over-assessing himself but he also did not under-assess himself.

"My belief (is) that trying and failing is better than not trying at all, specially under circumstances where Pakistan is suffering so much," he said, "and Pakistan needs to be put back on track, put back on track of development, socio economic development, peace within."

While the military in Pakistan has historically held enormous political power, it is the first time that a dictator is formally entering the country's politics by forming a political party and participating in the general elections. None of the former military dictators, such as General Ayub Khan (1958-1969), General Yahya Khan (1969-1971), Iskandar Mirza and General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) ever lived to stage a comeback in politics after being thrown out of power.

General Musharraf's return is extremely significant for Pakistan's democracy as it introduces the country's fragile democratic system and feeble institutions with unknown yet extraordinary challenges. What remains to be seen is how the military and the civilian politicians are going to receive a civilian Musharraf. On the one hand, the parliament has demanded that the former general should be put on trial for violating the country's constitution, sanctioning human rights abuses and failing to provide adequate security to the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the powerful military, on the other hand, is confronted with the challenge as to how to protect one of its former chiefs from being publicly humiliated and punished for his actions. Generals in Pakistan normally discourage efforts by the civilians that seek explanations for their extra-constitutional deeds.

General Musharraf's future as a politician entirely hinges on the level of support he will receive from the military. If he is brought to justice by the democratic government, it will clearly indicate the decline of the army's political authority. The army's appetite for power has still not diminished. In the past five years, it made a number of failed attempts to oust the democratic government, as was seen during the Memogate, a scandal stating that Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to Washington D.C. had sought United States assistance from preventing a military takeover in his country. On November 22, 2011, Mr. Haqqani resigned from his job in a goodwill gesture "to bring closure to this meaningless controversy threatening our fledgling democracy". Despite its deep-rooted contempt for President Zardari and the P.P.P., the military had become too demoralized after the raid on Osama bin Laden compound that it could no longer stage a coup against the civilian government.

The Pakistani experience shows that the military does not ditch its men even after their retirement. General Musharraf's upcoming return shows the military's new political strategy. Finding direct coups globally and nationally very unpopular and unacceptable, the military has now begun to introduce its proxies such as General Musharraf, the passionately anti-U.S. Imran Khan, the mysterious Canadian-Pakistani cleric Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri, the rogue nuclear scientist Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, and the Jihadist Pakistan Defense Council as political players. The rise of such a large number of political forces loyal to and directly or indirectly backed by the army is unprecedented. Their presence is intended to undermine and counter the power of the country's two largest political parties, the P.P.P and the Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

General Musharraf's electoral success or defeat is insignificant, at least in the upcoming elections. But his return will still change the dynamics of Pakistan's politics. For the first time, so many pro-military political parties will appear on the political realm. Without coming into power, these forces will still be able to blackmail, destabilize and embarrass the future governments headed by the P.P.P. or the P.M.L.

The conservative pro-military block, Musharraf included, is expected to seek a review of Islamabad's current policies such as Pakistan's relationship with the United States and India; the current terms of arrangement in the war on terror (particularly on drone strikes), the battle against the Taliban and the future of Afghanistan. Pakistan has never had a former military dictator serve as an opposition leader. General Musharraf is all set to ink that new chapter. His plans to form electoral alliances with conservative political groups like the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, is going to influence the future of politics and policy in Pakistan.