Pervez Musharraf Launches His Political Comeback

General Pervez Musharraf at a military review in Islamabad in November 2007. Mian Khursheed / Reuters-Landov

In the spring of 2009, Gen. Pervez Musharraf found himself living in a friend’s spare bedroom in London. Nine months earlier he’d been president of Pakistan, charged with the world’s sixth-largest population and fourth-largest nuclear arsenal. Now he was forced to face more pedestrian concerns. “Should I move outside the city and maybe find something cheaper and bigger, or stay in central London?” Musharraf remembers thinking.

He found a three-bedroom flat off Hyde Park, in an upscale London neighborhood, and settled into unglamorous self-exile. The hard part, he says, is “not having anything to do.” He golfs and plays a weekly game of bridge, usually makes his way around without the trappings of a big security detail, and more or less lives out in the open. (“Even all the delivery guys know where he lives,” a doorman says.) Sitting on his couch one evening in September in a pair of leisure slacks, on the eve of a visit to America to meet politicians and boost his international profile, Musharraf says he doesn’t intend to live this way much longer. He’s been planning an unlikely comeback: after taking power in a military coup more than a decade ago, he wants to win it back through the ballot box. “I call it the call of destiny,” he says.

The 68-year-old’s plan—as he reiterated last week during a stopover in Washington en route to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York—is to return to Pakistan in the spring and contest the country’s 2013 elections. He launched his own political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), in Britain last year. He’s been campaigning to the Pakistani diaspora and drumming up a political operation headquartered in Islamabad. He’s also been speaking out against the country’s current government, pushing the idea that things were much better with him in charge.

Musharraf resigned the presidency under threat of impeachment, and with angry mobs—led by the country’s lawyers and the man he’d overthrown nine years earlier, Nawaz Sharif—massed below his office window. But he feels vindicated by the problems that have gripped Pakistan since: rising poverty, a sinking economy, growing extremism, a disintegrating relationship with the United States. “As they say, the taste of the pudding is in its eating. And now the people realize that their condition was so good,” he says.

Pakistan’s democratic leaders have failed the country, Musharraf says, and the only answer is help from outside the entrenched mainstream. “There’s a political vacuum.”

This was Musharraf’s justification for staging the 1999 coup that put him in power in the first place. Successive democratic governments had proved so corrupt and inept that even some liberal-minded Pakistanis looked past their constitutional qualms and welcomed the change. Musharraf promised to clean things up and get Pakistan back to a democracy as quickly as he could.

Instead, Musharraf staged an awkward nine-year balancing act between political leader and Army chief. He liberalized Pakistan’s economy, passed progressive reforms, and tried to crack down on corruption and Islamic extremism in the military. But he also changed the Constitution twice to stay in power, stood accused of vote rigging, and provoked a disastrous battle with the courts, sacking the chief justice and setting off the protests that helped push him from power.

Musharraf had a tricky relationship with Pakistan’s political parties from the start, especially the powerful Pakistan Muslim League, whose leader, Sharif, he’d deposed—leading to Sharif’s exile. Even as president and Army chief, he needed to find political support. As Matthew Nelson, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, points out, military rulers in Pakistan need some semblance of popular consent. “The military, despite being very powerful in Pakistan, simply does not have enough power to have a lock on the political process,” he says.

The result was the founding, in 2002, of Musharraf’s own party, also named the Pakistan Muslim League (it goes by PML-Q to Sharif’s PML-N). Derided as the “king’s party,” the PML-Q was an uneasy collection of former Sharif supporters and members of Benazir Bhutto’s liberal Pakistan People’s Party. After a referendum to validate Musharraf’s presidency (he was the only candidate on the ballot) and a less-discredited general election later that year, it was apparent that he would need to rely on the same political players he’d said he was out to challenge.

Through the power struggles that ensued, Musharraf seems to have developed an appreciation for popular power. Now he hopes to get some for himself. “I would like to take the people of Pakistan toward me, so that the political leaders, the conventional leaders of Pakistan, are dependent on me because I have the support of the people, rather than me having to depend on them because they have it,” he says. “Leadership is when you don’t have rank and yet people follow you.”

The idea of a former military ruler fashioning himself into a democrat strikes some as obscene. “This is a man who was a serial coup-maker,” says Human Rights Watch’s Ali Dayan Hasan, an acquaintance of Musharraf’s successor, Asif Ali Zardari. “Instead of being sainted across the Western world, he should be held to account for large-scale human-rights abuses and treated with the same contempt that any has-been dictator deserves.”

Musharraf has kept a high profile in the West, lecturing and appearing as a regular voice on Pakistan in the U.S. news. Bilateral tensions, meanwhile, are running high. America has accused Pakistan’s Army and spy agency, the ISI, of ties with militant networks, while Pakistan remains furious over America’s cross-border incursion during the Osama bin Laden raid and escalating use of drone strikes.

In light of the deteriorating diplomatic situation, some analysts think officials in Washington may be forgetting their old qualms about Musharraf, who was also accused of playing a double game between America and extremists. “I think there is a bit of longing for him in Washington. I hear people talk about that period as a better period,” says Moeed Yusuf, an adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.

But status in the West doesn’t translate to support at home—with anti-Americanism at an all-time high, it may actually be counterproductive. When it comes to politicking, Musharraf has started from scratch. “The day he ceased to be Army chief he ceased to be politically relevant,” Hasan says. “It’s one thing to be Army chief and derive your power from that. It’s quite another to start this political party.”

Musharraf initially thought he’d simply take charge of the PML-Q. But when he told the existing PML-Q president, whom Musharraf had installed, to make way for him, the president declined. “The PML-Q was my party,” Musharraf says. “I can’t go there and be a secretary to him or anything. I cannot be a second fiddle to anyone. Either I am the boss or I’m not there. This is my dilemma. Dealing with people now is very different, obviously, because I don’t have that authority.”

Musharraf’s campaigning has so far been focused overseas, limited to a steady stream of interviews in the Pakistani press and giving speeches to expats, who he hopes will spread the word back home. His team in Pakistan has surprised some by getting organizations started in the bulk of the country’s districts. But even they are modest in their expectations. “Our aim here in Pakistan is to create at least a minimally conducive atmosphere for his return,” says Fawad Chaudhry, the party’s provincial director in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province and the stronghold of Musharraf’s enemy, Sharif.

Most independent observers don’t give Musharraf much chance at success—at most, maybe a spot in Parliament. “APML is a nonstarter,” says Aitzaz Ahsan, the Bhutto lieutenant who led the lawyers’ movement that irreparably weakened Musharraf’s power. “There is no parliamentarian who attended its launch, and no one in Parliament or in the practical field of politics has to date joined him.” While Musharraf has scored unexpected, if limited, gains on the ground, Ahsan says he is “more unpopular in Pakistan than Gaddafi was in Libya.”

Musharraf knows that nothing serious can happen until he goes to Pakistan. “The real gains cannot be made by remote control,” he says. But even returning to Pakistan carries serious risk. Musharraf survived two highly publicized assassination attempts as president, and now, without the protection of his office, he could be in graver danger from any number of militants still riled over his alliance with the U.S., his pro-India stance, and the 2007 commando operation against the Lal Masjid mosque, where terrorists had been holed up. “His own personal security would be in question from the moment he stepped off the plane. It would be a serious question whether or not the sitting government would protect him,” says Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Then there are the legal challenges. A court in the restive province of Baluchistan recently issued an arrest warrant for Musharraf over the botched 2006 military operation that killed a controversial chieftain. Another court in Rawalpindi, the garrison city where Bhutto—whom America pushed into an ill-fated, short-lived alliance with Musharraf—was assassinated in 2007, ordered his properties seized and accounts frozen. It had issued an arrest warrant in February after Musharraf refused to cooperate with legal proceedings that accuse him of failing to provide Bhutto with adequate security.

Musharraf says popular support would be his primary defense. “The mandate of the people, the big support of the people—that will be my greatest safeguard,” he says. He’s also in backroom talks with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (which was part of his government and is now partners with Zardari’s), which has a political lock on Karachi and might help Musharraf to a seat in the National Assembly by not fielding a candidate against him. If Musharraf ends his self-exile as announced on Pakistan Day, March 23, he could well land in Karachi.

Musharraf is also certain that the Army would shield him were he to return to Pakistan. “Obviously, the whole Army is mine,” Musharraf says. “Everyone knows me. ISI knows me. I expect—and I think I will get—support from them on my security.” He says he has no relationship with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the former ISI chief and his handpicked successor to lead the Army, other than sending holiday cards. But when asked if he expects Kayani to look out for him: “Without asking,” he says. “I don’t ask. I expect that, yes.”

Careful planning, Musharraf adds, will take him only so far. “I strongly believe in the Napoleonic theory that two thirds of a plan is your calculation and your data,” he says, “and one third is always a leap in the dark.”

If Musharraf does return, he promises at least to shake things up. The Army would be forced into a difficult position, wary of seeing the precedent of a former military leader held to account in court or killed by extremists. Musharraf’s political rivals, meanwhile, have already taken note. When supporters recently hung Musharraf banners in Sharif’s Punjab, they were promptly arrested. “He’s a lone ranger at this point,” Yusuf says. “But I think he’s raising the stakes.”

Sitting on his couch, Musharraf bristles as he re-counts the ways his legacy has been erased. Aside from Pakistan’s backtracking on the economic progress he made, he says, many of his initiatives have been scrapped—“even simple things,” like a popular food street he founded in Lahore. “They don’t want people to remember me,” Musharraf says. “But I’ll make sure that they remember me.”

With Fasih Ahmed In Lahore And R. M. Schneiderman In New York