Musharraf didn’t need the Peshawar High Court to render him politically irrelevant


Pakistan’s former leader, Pervez Musharraf, has been barred from Pakistani civilian politics for life, following a ruling this week by the Peshawar High Court, the highest court in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Pakistan Flag Icon

Musharraf, who took power as army chief of staff in 1999, ousting prime minister Nawaz Sharif at the time, left office in 2008 to the first truly free and fair elections since the 1997 election that Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N, اکستان مسلم لیگ ن) won.

After five years outside the country, Musharraf was hoping to return to Pakistan from self-imposed exile under the banner of his newly formed (as of 2010, at least) All Pakistan Muslim League (APML, آل پاکستان مسلم لیگ).  The faction that supported Musharraf throughout the 2000s, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) (پاکستان مسلم لیگ ق, or the PML-Q), is no longer much of a factor, and what remains of the PML-Q now supports the ruling — and fading — Pakistan People’s Party (PPP, پاکستان پیپلز پارٹی‎).

Though the PPP is struggling in advance of the May 11 elections, Musharraf has never been thought the likely benefactor.  Instead, Sharif, the prime minister that Musharraf ousted over a decade ago and who returned to Pakistan from his own exile in late 2007, leads polls in the May elections and is expected to win on the basis of his party’s wide support in Punjab province, the country’s most populous by far.

Musharraf retains pockets of support, especially within Pakistan’s military.  But when he returned to the country on March 24, only about 300 supporters even bothered to greet him at Karachi’s airport.  Things have gone downhill ever since for Musharraf, whose recent lifetime political ban is the least of his legal worries.  Musharraf was disqualified from running by election officials in four locations throughout the country, and he’s now subject to at least three other investigations, one of which forced him to flee a courtroom earlier in April over charges that he committed treason for declaring emergency rule in 2007.  Even more immediately, he’s been placed under house arrest in respect of the investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, who returned from her own exile in 2007 as well to run for office at the head of the PPP.  Musharraf isn’t believed to have actively participated or planned the bombing and shooting  attack, but he’s been accused of failing to provide Bhutto sufficient protection at the time.  

Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, subsequently won the Pakistani presidency as her successor as PPP leader and the PPP won the February 2008 election and installed Yousuf Raza Gillani as prime minister.  But though the PPP-led government has stumbled to the end of its natural five-year mandate, it does so having presided over an economic, security, political and governance disaster, with Zardari himself stripped of much of his power, Gillani hounded from office by Pakistan’s supreme court and the PPP’s heir apparent, Bhutto’s 24-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, too young to even be elected prime minister.

The PPP may even poll behind the anti-corruption, liberal Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice or PTI, پاکستان تحريک), which is led by the charismatic former cricket star Imran Khan who is either a fraudulent charlatan or a charismatic reformer, depending upon whom you ask.

What’s becoming increasingly likely is that despite many problems within Pakistan, it is likely to mark its first peaceful transfer of power from one party’s civilian political government to another party’s civilian political government for the first time in its history.

But those problems remain fairly troubling.

A wave of violence led by the Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (i.e., the Pakistani Taliban) has suppressed much of any active public campaign activity, which makes for an oddly tense and subdued environment throughout the country of nearly 180 million people just 10 days before the election.  Musharraf himself hasn’t been seriously harmed, though Islamic extremists have issued death threats against him.  Khan, despite his nationalist, secular appeal, has managed to escape the wrath of the Pakistani Taliban, and he’s been the boldest of the party leaders in holding public rallies throughout the nation.

In addition, though Musharraf has virtually never had any shot at returning to power, his reemergence has complicated an already tense relationship between civilian government and the military and Pakistan’s security services.  Although army chief of staff Ashfaq Kayani has largely kept the military out of domestic politics throughout the election, he’s made clear his disapproval of what he sees as the hounding of Musharraf by Pakistani courts:

In what newspapers described as a veiled reference to Musharraf’s legal troubles, [Kayani] said: “In my opinion, it is not merely retribution, but awareness and participation of the masses that can truly end this game of hide and seek between democracy and dictatorship.”

Kayani hopes to avoid setting a precedent of former military leaders being hauled into court after retirement for their misdeeds while in office, and the military, even without interfering in domestic politics, holds perhaps even more power than the civilian government in actually running the country, especially with regard to internal insurgencies and other security problems.

But Pakistani courts have become increasingly bold in the post-Musharraf era, as Pakistan’s supreme court is also engaged in a long-term fight with Zardari over alleged graft accusations that forced Gillani from office in 2012.

As author and South Asian policy expert Daniel Markey wrote for Foreign Policy earlier in April, however, Musharraf’s fate will only serve as another difficult challenge in a year that was otherwise full of difficult transitions (Pakistan will elect a new president and appoint a new supreme court chief justice as well as a successor to Kayani as army chief of staff later this year):

It is to say, however, that this latest humbling of Musharraf looks more like a step back in time than a leap ahead to a bright new future. The once all-powerful tyrant is receiving another dose of comeuppance, but unfortunately not in the context of a noble “truth-and-reconciliation” exercise of the sort that other countries have used to bring closure to periods of civil conflict and crimes against the constitution or core human rights.

Instead, Musharraf will more likely be treated to justice-as-vengeance, delivered by two of his chief political foes, once again acting in an alliance that has served their mutual purposes for years. The chief justice, whom Musharraf tried to sack in 2007, will assert his authority from the bench at least until he retires at the end of 2013. And Sharif will have his chance too if, as is widely assumed, his party wins enough seats in national elections on May 11 to form a ruling coalition in Islamabad and reappoint him as the prime minister.

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