Author: Mahendra Ved, New Delhi
Pakistan’s former military strongman, the retired general Pervez Musharraf, recently returned from over four years of exile and declared his hope to contest the election and ‘save’ Pakistan by ruling the country once more.
Now, he has been thrown out of the electoral race, restricted from leaving the country and is facing a combination of legal and political battles. Most seriously, he has been charged with treason and is being investigated for abetting the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Musharraf, who had been planning a homecoming through public declarations since January last year, may have thought he would not be allowed to come back. There are only hints about what could have allowed his return, and of a possible ‘foreign conspiracy’ in bringing him back.
Attention has turned to the role of the Saudi Arabian royalty. There is a history of Saudi involvement in Pakistani politics. Saudi Arabia intervened to ensure the return of Nawaz Sharif during the last election. The background to this event is that Musharraf ousted Sharif from power in a military coup in 1999, and then sent him into exile as part of a Saudi-brokered deal that Sharif would not return home for 10 years. But the Saudis broke that deal, mainly because Benazir Bhutto had returned from exile in October 2007, following another alleged deal with Musharraf at the behest of the United States.
The other foreign player is thought to be the United States. Some think that Washington would like Musharraf back home because he joined US efforts in the ‘Global War Against Terrorism’ in Afghanistan in 2001, and sustained it as long as he was in power.
The alleged involvement of the United States has angered many. Groups as diverse as Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), an array of militant groups, and conservative sections within the army, the civil bureaucracy and the intelligence community condemn possible US interference in Pakistani politics. Talk of US influence is also feeding the current mood during the election campaign.
In court, Musharraf’s treason trial relates to the charge of subverting the Constitution during his 1999–2008 rule. The Supreme Court has rejected his lawyers’ plea to put the matter off until after the election to allow him time to campaign.
On the election front, there is not much of a presence left of the party he fathered when in exile — the All Pakistan Muslim League. His election papers have also been rejected in Karachi, Islamabad, Kasur and Chitral. The rejecting officers cited Musharraf’s imposition of a state of emergency in the country in November 2007 and his unlawful detention of judges of the superior judiciary as reasons for the rejection. The ex-military ruler was also accused of not disclosing his source of income in his nomination papers, yet declaring assets worth more than Rs.760 million (US $7,752,000). Musharraf’s papers have also been challenged by candidates of various parties, including the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), PTI and Jamaat-i-Islami.
There are real threats to Musharraf’s life. Security considerations would not allow him to run in Balochistan where he is accused of masterminding the killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, one of the most prominent Baloch ‘nationalist’ leaders. An array of rebel groups operating in Balochistan could also target Musharraf. The biggest threat to his life comes from the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that came into being after Musharraf conducted military operations to oust militants from Lal Masjid in the heart of Islamabad.
Musharraf remains a hugely controversial figure in Pakistan nearly five years after he resigned in the face of impeachment proceedings, and his All Pakistan Muslim League party is not a serious contender at the polls. Going by Pakistani media reports of the election campaign, there is a near-consensus that he had violated the Constitution and that he essentially caused the country’s current crisis. Musharraf would be aware that no Pakistani dictator has returned to power and there are reports that he was advised against returning home. Now he is home he must begin the long struggle of both fighting in court and fighting for his life.
Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based writer and columnist.
A version of this article was published here in the South Asia Monitor.