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The return of Musharraf

by Shahid Javed Burki

LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, has decided to return to Pakistani politics, if not quite to Pakistan. He announced his decision at London’s National Liberal Club, an institution founded in the 19th century by William Gladstone and other stalwarts of Britain’s parliamentary tradition.

Of course, Musharraf did not uphold the Gladstonian tradition while he was in office for almost nine years, from October 1999 to August 2008. Indeed, he admitted as much in his speech at the launch of his political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, from a safe distance of thousands of miles from an increasingly turbulent Pakistan.

Although Musharraf did not elaborate on his “mistakes,” the reference was obvious: his impulsive decision in March 2007 to fire Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from the Supreme Court. The judge had refused to be directed by the president and the military in deciding important constitutional matters, including Musharraf’s own eligibility to contest the presidency while still in uniform.

The second “mistake” came the following November, after Musharraf’s government failed to contain the legal community’s impressive civil- disobedience movement to pressure the government to reinstate Chaudhry. Musharraf, again acting impulsively, placed the country under emergency rule when Chaudhry was brought back by a decision of his own court. Chaudhry was fired again, a move accompanied this time by a wider shakeup of the already shaken-up judiciary. The government emptied the Supreme Court of relatively independent judges and installed a more “trustworthy” group.

The strategy didn’t work, and the lawyers returned to agitating. Musharraf withdrew the emergency and restored the constitution, but a few days later Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi after she addressed a large election rally. Musharraf postponed the December 2007 elections until February 2008.

Many assumed that Musharraf would follow the lead of his military predecessors, who on several occasions announced elections and a return to democracy, only to postpone the vote when it drew near. But Musharraf surprised the Pakistani political establishment and held the election, in which the Pakistan Muslim League (the Quaid Group), his political base, was trounced by Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim Group (the Nawaz Group).

The second Muslim League was headed by Nawaz Sharif, twice Pakistan’s prime minister. His second tenure ended when Musharraf removed him from office in October 1999 to establish the country’s fourth military regime. Following the coup, Bhutto and Nawaz fled into exile, and were allowed back into the country only after Musharraf, hoping that their return would help deflect public attention from the lawyers’ protest movement, announced that he would hold elections.

Given the way Musharraf governed the country, it is hard to imagine that he will be able to stage a political comeback. Pakistan these days is a troubled country, politically as well as economically. Talk of regime change may have prompted Musharraf to re-enter politics. Only a politician who has the support of major constituencies can hope to restore political order and economic health, and Musharraf is presenting himself as a candidate whom the military might support.

In a long BBC interview before launching his new party, Musharraf suggested that Pakistan’s army was the only institution that could save the country from its woes. “There is a sense of despondency in Pakistan, and the place that the people go to is the military,” he said. “In Pakistan, they come to the army headquarters, they come to the army chief . . . and they ask them to act. They don’t trust the politicians.”

While there may be some element of truth in this, Musharraf appears not to have learned the lesson of his final year in office. Then, an energized legal community, supported by a hyperactive media, was able to defy a military government. It is unlikely that most Pakistanis, despite their distrust of Pakistan’s politicians, will be inclined to turn to someone with Musharraf’s history.

The army, in fact, recognizes this. It also realizes that Pakistan can be effectively governed only if its leaders have the support of other important constituencies. These include the large and growing middle class in Punjab’s many large cities — where Nawaz’s Muslim League governs.

The muhajir community — the refugees who migrated from India in 1947 — has its own party, the Muhajir Qaumi Movement, which governs Sindh and its large cities with the help of the People’s Party. The PPP remains popular in rural Sindh and among the country’s poor and lower middle class. The Pashtuns have their own party, the National Awami Party, which governs the newly named province of Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa, on the border with Afghanistan.

Despite today’s turbulence, it is unlikely that the military will intervene directly and take over the reins of government, as it has on four occasions in Pakistan’s history. If, however, it is to orchestrate a regime change — which it might attempt to do — it will not likely disregard these groups and their power bases by imposing their former commander on the political system.

The military, if it is to play a role, will try to find new leaders from among the political establishment. The political stage is too crowded for Musharraf to find a place to stand.

Shahid Javed Burki is a former finance minister of Pakistan and a former vice president of the World Bank. © 2010 Project Syndicate