Security personnel escort Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez… (Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty…)
KARACHI, Pakistan — As former military ruler Pervez Musharraf stepped off the plane at Karachi’s international airport Sunday, he returned to a very different nation from the one he was forced to leave in 2008 — one that has no interest in bringing back military rule, and has little if any appetite to give a onetime autocrat a major spotlight on the political stage.
His agenda in Pakistan includes leading his All Pakistan Muslim League party in contesting parliamentary elections slated for May 11. Pakistan’s history is marred by military coups and political ousters, and the upcoming elections will mark the first time one civilian government has democratically handed over authority to another.
The 69-year-old former president and army chief arrived in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and its commercial capital, in the early afternoon after leaving Dubai. Though he faces criminal charges linked to the assassination of a former prime minister and the slaying of a Baloch nationalist leader, the most immediate peril confronting him is the Pakistani Taliban, which says it has assembled suicide bomb squads to assassinate him.
Greeting him at the airport was a small but vocal crowd of several hundred of supporters, many of them dancing and waving green flags and banners imprinted with his image. Musharraf’s aides had expected tens of thousands of backers to show up at the airport. Later in the afternoon, he spoke to the crowd, portraying himself as a savior risking his life for the sake of his homeland.
“People said I wouldn’t come back and would be afraid. But I fear only God,” Musharraf told the crowd. “Risking my life, I have returned because people wanted me to come back and save Pakistan.”
While he does have support from some Pakistanis deeply disillusioned by the lack of progress in the last five years under President Asif Ali Zardari, most analysts believe Musharraf’s reputation is too damaged for him to make any kind of serious bid in the upcoming polls.
“I don’t think he’s going to be an important player in Pakistani politics,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading Pakistani political analyst. “He’s an articulate speaker, so he will always attract media attention. But he will be more visible on Pakistani television than in Pakistani elections.”
Musharraf was then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s army chief of staff in 1999 when he ousted Sharif and seized power in a bloodless coup. Two years later, he appointed himself president while maintaining his role as army chief.
Musharraf stepped down from office in 2008 to avoid imminent impeachment proceedings. He had suspended the country’s constitution in 2007 and jailed thousands of opponents in a bid to neutralize political adversaries, moves that backfired when opposition leaders won parliamentary elections in early 2008. Ruling coalition leaders later declared their intent to impeach Musharraf, and on Aug. 18, 2008, Musharraf left the presidential palace for the last time, saluted an honor guard, and departed in a black limousine.
Since then, he has split his time between London and Dubai, giving lectures to Western audiences while engineering his political comeback. At times, he has set dates for a return that he abandoned at the last moment.
Musharraf’s backers insist the former president has widespread support within a population wearied by the daily power outages, corruption and rampant militancy that has characterized governance under Zardari.
“People see him as a genuine leader who can pull the country out of the prevailing system,” said Chaudhry Shafiq, a senior All Pakistan Muslim League party leader. “People are fed up with the current system. They’ve suffered five years of looting.”
The likelihood of his arrest diminished this week with a ruling from a Sindh provincial court granting him protective bail that effectively bars his detention for the next 10 days. Musharraf is wanted in Pakistan on charges that he did not provide enough security to prevent the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He also has been charged by Islamabad authorities in 2009 of illegally detaining 60 judges at their homes. And in the southern province of Balochistan, he faces charges that he ordered the killing of a Baloch nationalist leader in 2006.
While he could be summoned to court on each or all of those cases, analysts doubt that he will be jailed during the campaign season. Though the military has taken care to avoid any appearance of politically backing Musharraf, it also likely would take whatever steps needed to avoid the embarrassment of its former chief being put behind bars.
Staff writer Alex Rodriguez reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, and special correspondent Kashif Farooqi reported from Karachi. Special correspondent Nasir Khan contributed from Islamabad, Pakistan.