The general tries a comeback

Pervez Musharraf says he is the only person who can lead his country out of its current morass

The general tries a comeback

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Two years after being forced to resign the presidency, Pervez Musharraf wants a second crack at running Pakistan. With the country beset by natural disasters, economic malaise, an increasingly radicalized populace and corruption, Musharraf says the government of President Asif Ali Zardari is incapable of alleviating the “darkness that prevails in Pakistan.” Only he “can lead Pakistan toward light.”

Yet right from the start the former dictator, who originally seized power in a 1999 military coup, showed a lack of political savvy. He unveiled his new civilian political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, in the gentrified, book-lined National Liberal Club of London, instead of a locale that could reinforce his determination to tackle his nation’s mammoth problems. And after the usual platitudes and boasts of having more than 300,000 Facebook fans, the exiled 67-year-old, who wants to return to his homeland before the 2013 election, revealed few new policies.

In an echo of his old pro-U.S. stance, he did promote a hard line on the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan: no negotiations, no peace. But for all his tough talk, al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and its allies have operated with impunity out of Pakistan for years, with the government, whether Musharraf’s or Zardari’s, never threatening their bases. And while Musharraf pleads that “people should be patient with Pakistan,” there are signs that its biggest ally, the United States, is getting tired of waiting.

Indeed, Washington, which pours more than US$1.5 billion in non-military aid into Pakistan annually, has been unusually pointed in its criticism. Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attacked Pakistan for failing to reform its massively inequitable society. “Pakistan cannot have a tax rate of nine per cent of GDP when landowners and all the other elites do not pay anything or pay so little it’s laughable,” she said. “And then when there’s a problem everybody expects the U.S. and others to come in and help.”

While in power, Musharraf was a major beneficiary of U.S. largesse. And he still stands a chance of seeing his renewed political dreams come true. Pakistani politics is particularly murky right now. Zardari is fighting with the judiciary over a ruling that corruption charges levelled at him, as well as other cabinet ministers, should proceed. Other politicians are being accused of deliberately breaching levees during this summer’s massive floods, to divert rising waters away from their huge estates and toward poor areas.

Adding to the chaos is the ever-present threat of political violence, which has featured strongly in Pakistan’s history. A UN report into the 2007 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto criticized Musharraf’s government for “failing profoundly” to protect Bhutto. Musharraf himself might need protection: soon after he announced his new party, Talal Bugti, a Baluch politician, said the former dictator was “fit to be killed.” In fact, Bugti put up a bounty of cash and land for Musharraf, whom he blamed for the mysterious death of his father, a nationalist Baluch leader. The exiled leader wasn’t kidding when he spoke of the “risk” he’s now taking.

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