Monday, June 14, 2010

A Musharraf Comeback?

To contextualize Pervez Musharraf’s recently announced ambition to return to politics, I recalled a conversation I once had with a laborer. This was back in 2006, the peak of Musharraf’s reign, if you will. I asked the man what he thought of the President, especially in contrast with his rivals, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. He replied ‘As a Sindhi I love Benazir because she is a Sindhi. My Punjabi friends love Nawaz Sharif, because he is Punjabi. Musharraf is neither. He isn’t even Pathan or Baloch. Why would anybody love him?’

It is telling that more than 60 years since its inception, Pakistan’s polity is so ethnically defined. More crucially, the conversation presents the inherent flaw in Musharraf and other military rulers: their inability in developing a constituency outside the feudal-industrial-political elite.

This lack of grassroots support explains why the political stability, institutional development and socioeconomic progress of his early years were so easily forgotten in the rash hubris of his decline. Musharraf’s legacy in present day Pakistan is of a repressive dictator who assassinated his political opponents, abrogated the Consitution and sold the country to the US.

That despite this reputation, he wishes to return to the country’s political arena represents either audacity or idiocy, depending on how one looks at it. The media obviously believes the latter, neatly exhibited by Salman Masood’s article in the Express Tribune, asking the General not to return:

"There is hardly any political space for Musharraf. Any form of a comeback in such a treacherous and inhospitable landscape would be no less than a miracle…And time is not on the general’s side either. He already seems like a relic of the past."

Masood and the rest of Pakistan’s media have a point about Musharraf’s alleged sins. Most of them are indefensible. In most civilized societies such sins would merit punishment of the highest order. But Pakistan is not one of those societies, for two reasons.

One, the transient nature of public opinion. This is a country that celebrated Nawaz Sharif’s exile by dancing and distributing sweets, and then welcomed him back 8 years later with, you guessed it, dancing and by distributing sweets.

Second, unaccountability and lawlessness, especially for the elite. This results in a history of unconceivable political developments. For evidence look no further than the occupant of the country's highest office. I speak for a 160 million people, when I say that Zardari's Presidency was unfathomable even in our wildest dreams.

This is not to discount the gargantuan challenge Musharraf will face. It will still require the most outlandish of political efforts. A revengeful judiciary, a besieged political class and an increasingly dangerous terrorist network will gun for his head. There will be lawsuits, security threats and a barrage of criticism from the television networks.

Such a fractious environment will test the strongest of mettles. Impossible though, this task is not. Broadly speaking, it comes down to four factors swinging in his favor. In them lie his hopes of averting trial for treason, convincing a skeptical public of his sincerity and wading the treacherous political waters.

  1. The Army. The keys to Musharraf’s past, present and future lie at the GHQ. His aforementioned lack of public support makes this even more pertinent. Under General Kayani, the Army has strayed clear of the political arena. But that is Kayani’s policy and he will retire sooner rather than later. History suggests that the Army’s political policies shift with its chiefs, which is what Musharraf will be counting on. He may even have an interest in the current race to be COAS. Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, third in line, was his former spy chief and close confidante.
  2. Saudi Arabia. Since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan hasn’t had a single leader who did not rely on either the US and/or Saudi Arabia for power. The legacy of his proximity with George Bush will make any association with the US poisonous. That is where the Saudis come in. Musharraf is said to have already courted their support, cultivating a close relationship with the royal family. This was exhibited by a very public show of supportduring a time when there were calls for his trial in Pakistan last year. A foreign backer of the Saudis caliber will strengthen his credentials both inside and outside the country.
  3. The PMLQ. It may be maligned and unpopular, but it is still the second largest party in the Punjab, and the only plausible alternative to the Sharifs. National politics in Pakistan starts and ends in the Punjab. For any semblance of political relevance, Musharraf will need a strong presence in the province. He will be encouraged by a flurry of meetings with many of the party’s legislators, but the kingmakers remain the Chaudhries of Gujrat. Despite their problems, they remain a potent political force, and can provide Musharraf with the resources and acumen to succeed.
  4. The media. It is ironic that the media loathes the man who was responsible for its independence. By his own admission, Musharraf discounted their influence during the lawyers’ movement and his demise. It is hence imperative to win them over. Here, there is a precedent. In 1998, the Nawaz Sharif government launched a censorship and financial attack on the Jang Group, owners of Geo TV, to curb their persistent criticism of his corruption and mis-governance. However, a decade later, they not only embraced his political agenda, but contributed to his elevation to the zenith of the country’s politics. Sharif’s spin masters and undoubtedly his billions had much to do with this. Musharraf would do well to take note.

Even if he recruits all the above, Musharraf would face a formidable opponent. He will also be standing against history, which has proven that no military ruler has ever returned to power in any manner, let alone as a shalwar-kurta dressed politician. But it is in this same history, specifically its idiosyncrasies, lies his best hope. The verdict on the Musharraf comeback? Improbable yes, impossible no.


  1. 'This lack of grassroots support explains why the political stability, institutional development and socioeconomic progress of his early years were so easily forgotten in the rash hubris of his decline.'

    Umm. No. I don't have an issue with Musharraf returning to democratic politics, as long as he faces the courts, but to reminisce about the era of a dictator in words such as the ones you've used above is simply another example of the class-disconnect we suffer from. There was no institutional development in Musharraf's era. His entire rule was retrogressive for our political and social institutions. Socioeconomic progress is measured for the entire population, not just for the face-tweeting classes. The only thing he possessed was political stability, and he'd be a pretty bad dictator if he didn't have that either.

    It's good to have a political opinion, especially in these apathetic times, but to generalize a personal political opinion for the rest of the country is slightly uncalled for.

  2. to the 'anonymous' person who commented above:

    What country were you living in during the years when Musharraf was in power?

  3. in Pakistan. But i'm talking about the Pakistan of those 60 percent odd people who lived under two dollars a day. 15 percent increase in their numbers over the time Musharraf was in power. Like i said, many of us might have seen economic growth and all that other jazz, but that doesn't mean it helped the entire country.

  4. There was a time when Musharraf had his political campaign on display on billboards across Karachi. They cited economic indicators, but never inflation numbers. Of course, that is not to say that the current government has a good record in that department, but we tend to exaggerate Musharraf's achievements.

    And this is emblematic of the elites. Why? Because he spoke decent English and wore a crisp uniform? My teachers, who have deep contacts in the civil service, tell me Pakistan's coffers were empty when he came in, and they were empty when he left. Once when asked about economic progress, Musharraf's response was that a lot more people have cell phones now. Ahan. Then in response to an industrialist's complaint about political unrest causing significant damage to his factories, he said that he was sure the industrialist had made a lot of money in the past and could now pay for repairs himself.

    I'm with anonymous on this one.

  5. So you're talking about an increase of 15% over a period of 9 years. And what was the rate of increase of these people who live under two dollars a day during the 90s?

  6. interesting stuff Umair, when's the election? I'd like to start following these candidates

  7. Structural and institutional development might be pushing it, even though he was tough on foreign policy and his term coincided with a boom in the services sector. Political institutions definitely did not develop and the judiciary remained as vulnerable as it was during Nawaz's time. The media, I concede, did flourish.

    I think Anon is harsh with his criticism of Umair but his take on Pervez Sb. is understandable.

  8. Also, there are rumors here that PML-Q members (not the Chaudhries but some of the other cardholders) might flock to Musharraf's side upon his return. If enough of them do change colors, it might give the new party enough constituencies to pull off some kind of result and make it more than just an organization founded on the grounds that the Musharraf Facebook page has 10,000+ fans.

  9. For starters, this was in no way a defense of Pervez Musharraf. The point of this article was to muse on his potential return, not look back at his era of power. Nevertheless, I have three thoughts about the comments:

    1. When talking of class disconnect, I clearly state in the post that Musharraf's biggest flaw was that his policies catered to the elite, not the poor (2nd para, 2nd sent).

    2. Talking of socio-economic growth in terms of extreme poverty is flawed, because the term constitutes a lot more than just poverty alleviation. In any case, the statistic that 60% people under the rate of $2/a day is off the mark. Firstly, extreme poverty is measured by $1.25 and NOT $2/a day. Secondly, between 2000-2009 Pakistan's poverty rate halved to around 22% (ADB report, 2009). Thirdly, in the Asia Pacific region with 30-odd countries, Pakistan ranked third in income equality, measured by the share of income of the lower quantile in the total economy. Fourthly, in several other socio-economic measures, such as literacy, Pakistan remained stagnant. That is the right measure of indictment of Musharraf, not extreme poverty. Finally, Pakistan's GDP per capita rose by 60% in that decade, driven mostly by the services sector. It benefited the rich and middle class for sure, but to exclude the progress of this 40% of the country's population from your overal economic assessment is just a populist argument.

    For more:

    3. Institutional development refers to more than just the parliament and judiciary. It also refers to capital markets, religious, education and media institutions. Here there was progress, perhaps not to the extent that we were made to believe back then, but progress nevertheless. Examples include the Council on Islamic Ideology, Higher Education Commission, Privatization Commission etc which were created/strengthened. Moreover, I would say that the reforms in political institutions were on the right track, they only later fell prey to old-school politicking (by Musharraf himself ironically). The LG system worked in a number of areas, women and minorities had enhanced representation, political parties had to undergo internal elections and parliamentarians were required to hold degrees. These were obviously not enough, and once Musharraf assumed his wreckless dictatorial role they clearly lost significance, but from a purly theoretical point of view, these reforms are crucial to the development of political institutions.

    Again, this is by no means a defense of Musharraf, just a response to the comments I received. I'd much rather people focus on the crux of the post, which was to discuss his return.

    P.S: Anonymous, please read your second paragraph carefully. If that does not constitute as a 'generalization of personal political opinion for the rest of the country' than I don't know what does.