Pakistan’s former military leader and President, Pervez Musharraf, ended more than four years of exile today when he flew into Karachi to embark on what he hopes will be his political comeback.
Ignoring death threats from the Taliban and a series of outstanding legal charges against him, Mr Musharraf landed in the commercial capital on a flight from Dubai, where he has spent much of his time since leaving Pakistan in April 2009.
“The people ordered me to come back and save Pakistan. I have placed my life in jeopardy but I have returned,” he told supporters at the airport. “Where has the Pakistan I left gone? My heart cries tears of blood when I see the state of the country today.”
The former leader, whose party was badly defeated in elections in 2008, ended his address by leading chants of “We Will Save Pakistan”.
Mr Musharraf, who was dressed in a white shalwar kameez and sandals, is adamant that he and his All Pakistan Muslim League have an important role to play in the future of Pakistan and in elections due to take place in May.
In Dubai on Saturday, announcing his intention to return to Pakistan, he admitted his future was uncertain. He also said he had been told by the Saudi authorities of the danger he was facing. “They expressed concern over my security and told me that I had many enemies back home. I told them that I have had enemies for the past 12 years,” he told reporters. “I am feeling concerned about the unknown… There are a lot of unknown factors of terrorism and extremism, unknown factors of legal issue, unknown factors of how much I will be able to perform.”
Indeed, just an hour after he spoke, the Pakistan Taliban released a video threatening to unleash suicide bombers and snipers against Mr Musharraf if he returned. “The mujahedin of Islam have prepared a death squad to send Pervez Musharraf to hell,” said one of the militants, according to Reuters.
The former President is not lacking in self-esteem. He believes he possesses what it takes to tackle a host of problems confronting the country, including a struggling economy, inadequate power generation and the continuing threat of extremism.
However, many believe he is yesterday’s man and that his impact on the election will be minimal. A Chatham House analyst, Farzana Shaikh, said: “There is no doubt that he has some support among sections of the country’s well-to-do and well-heeled classes, which is probably why he now carries the unenviable title of King of Cliftonia [an upmarket neighbourhood in Karachi]”.
She added: “His electoral reach is unlikely to be anywhere near that enjoyed by the big beasts – the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N. Indeed, their silence on his return suggests to me that he and his party pose no threat at all to their chances.” As it is, none of Pakistan’s mainstream political parties are publicly taking Mr Musharraf’s return seriously. The cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan laughed off suggestions of an electoral alliance, and the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, which is leading the polls, considers him a minor irritant.
Voters looking for an alternative to traditional parties will this time have the option of voting for Mr Khan’s Movement for Justice. In Lahore on Saturday, Mr Khan launched his campaign with an impressive 150,000-strong rally. The crowd included many young people, who said they wanted to see a new face in power. “We want change, real change,” said Ghazanfar Ali, a 36-year-old stockbroker.
While Pakistan’s latest experiment with democracy has left many disenchanted, few are looking back fondly on the Musharraf years. During his nine years in power, Pakistan’s security situation deteriorated sharply as Mr Musharraf signed peace deals with militants, the south-western province of Baluchistan was plunged into a flickering insurgency, and there was scant investment in the energy sector.
During his final years in power, Mr Musharraf displayed a stern authoritarian side. He sacked the Chief Justice twice, sparking a lawyers-led movement for democracy. He imposed a state of emergency in November 2007, imprisoning politicians, judges, senior lawyers and human rights activists, took news channels off the air, and is accused of providing the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto with inadequate security leading up to her assassination in December 2007.
Mr Musharraf, whose return coincided with the appointment of a former Chief Justice, Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, as caretaker Prime Minister, had been lucky to secure pre-arrest bail over a series of legal cases including a claim that he conspired to kill Ms Bhutto. But the legal challenges will continue to haunt him. Since he was last in Pakistan, the country’s politicians have demanded that he be held accountable for the army’s misadventure in Kargil, the 1999 coup he mounted, the death of the Baluch leader Akbar Bugti, and the imposition of a state of emergency in 2007.
“Musharraf should not be allowed to elude the serious legal proceedings against him on his return to Pakistan,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch. “Only by ensuring that Musharraf faces the well-documented outstanding charges against him can Pakistan put an end to the military’s impunity for abuses.”
Timeline: A decade of bad blood
1998 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appoints General Musharraf army chief. Their relationship breaks down soon afterwards.
1999 Sharif sacks Musharraf, who then seizes power in a bloodless coup. Sharif is later sent into exile.
2001 Musharraf is sworn in as President, retaining his post as army chief. After the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan joins the US-led “war on terror”.
2002 Musharraf wins a controversial referendum to extend his rule for five more years, and imposes laws effectively barring former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Sharif from power.
2007 Bowing to pro-democracy pressure, Musharraf steps down as army chief, vastly reducing his powers. In December, Bhutto is assassinated.
2008 Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and Sharif declare they intend to take steps to impeach Musharraf. In August, Musharraf resigns.