Significant political events are taking place in Pakistan that could have far-reaching implications for its democratic evolution. For the first time in the nation’s history, a civilian government has completed its term and elections seem likely to be held on time.
Further, a new caretaker prime minister, the retired Justice Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, has been announced amid a peaceful transition. Of particular significance, former dictator and ex-President Pervez Musharraf, has returned to Pakistan at this time to seek democratic legitimacy, following four years of self-imposed exile. Musharraf’s return adds a new dimension to the country’s political transformation.
Before his exile, the former chief of the Pakistani army ruled the country for more than nine years, from the time he seized power in a 1999 coup when he deposed the democratically elected civilian government headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In 2001, Musharraf was elected president and ruled with a heavy hand until he was ousted by a popular vote in 2008. In the upcoming election, Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) will run against Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), with the latter predicted to win. Further, as the elections approach, Musharraf’s past has come back to haunt him.
Before Musharraf could land in Karachi last Sunday, the Taliban had already issued a threat on his life. In a video message aimed at the former leader, militant Adnan Rasheed warned, "The mujahideen of Islam have prepared a special squad to send Musharraf to hell. There are suicide bombers, snipers, a special assault unit and a close combat team." The Taliban’s grievance with Musharraf stems from his choice to take arms with the United States in its war on terror. His order of a raid on the Red Mosque in 2007 to flush out militants holed up inside was another strike against him in the Taliban’s eyes.
The APML leader also faces a stiff challenge from the judiciary. Musharraf has several cases pending against him. He is wanted for illegally sacking judges in 2007, providing insufficient security for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, as well as for litigation related to the death of popular Baluch leader Akbar Bugti in 2006. Although he secured preemptive bail from the Sindh High Court, analysts say that sooner or later the law will catch up with him.
According to an article in the Washington Post, some analysts predict that Musharraf’s return could create a conflict between the judiciary and the military if he is arrested. This line of thinking suggests that the army that he served for 40 years may defend him in such a case.
But the real question is this: Will Pakistani citizens welcome a former dictator who was ousted by popular vote in 2008? Apparently the 69-year old former army general thinks so. He was quoted by the International Herald Tribune as saying, “I’m here to save Pakistan, I’m not scared of anyone but Allah.”
Yet, opinion is divided about his relevance in the present political scene.
General Asad Durrani, former ISI Chief and Intelligence expert, told The Diplomat, “I cannot see him having any major impact on the elections. No party has said that they would like to work with him or get involved with him. Imran Khan is not going to take him. He considers Musharraf to be baggage.”
On the other hand, Malik Siraj Akbar, a U.S.-based Pakistani journalist and editor of The Baloch Hal, wrote in the Huffington Post: “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.”
Malik continues: “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.”
There is no doubt that the former dictator’s entry into the political mainstream has confounded critics and supporters alike, but it is still too early to say what effect his arrival will have. Regardless of how Musharraf’s arrival does or does not change Pakistani politics, it is significant that for the first time in the Islamic republic’s turbulent history a former dictator is trying to gain political legitimacy through democratic means.