Democracy wins if Pakistan shuns Musharraf

Pakistan’s political history is full of theatrical entrances and tragic exits.

It was in keeping with this tradition that Pervez Musharraf, the former military dictator, flew into Karachi from the Gulf to be showered with rose petals at the weekend. “The general has landed on Pakistani soil,” one of his aides declared portentously. “He has returned to save the country.”

Mr Musharraf’s arrival in fact came perilously close to comedy when only a few hundred supporters turned out to greet him – such events are supposed to muster tens of thousands of jubilant fans – and the local Taliban reinforced its threat to assassinate him with a clumsy proverb that seemed to have been made up for the occasion: “When the jackal’s death is near, he heads to the town.”

To be fair, Mr Musharraf himself, whose autobiography In the Line of Fire was mocked for its lumbering prose, was more down to earth. “I am back in Pakistan and I will stay here,” he said. “We will work to revive Pakistan’s fortune and bring it to where it was when I left.”

Whether he will have any chance of pursuing that goal and whether its achievement would even help one of Asia’s most violent and backward nations are both open to doubt.

The few who support his return to the political fray ahead of Pakistan’s May 11 general election say that General (and President) Musharraf, as he once was, ran the economy with less corruption and more efficiency during his decade in power than the civilian government under President Asif Ali Zardari that followed in 2008.

For most Pakistanis and political commentators, however, Mr Musharraf in his present incarnation as a vote-seeker is of little immediate importance. “He has no political relevance at all,” says Shamila Chaudhary, a Washington-based analyst at Eurasia Group, the consultancy.

Mr Musharraf would not be the first Pakistani politician to shine brightly for a time before fading into the background. Think of Imran Khan, the cricketing hero who enthused young, middle-class Pakistanis after he entered politics in 1996, or Tahirul Qadri, the Muslim scholar reportedly backed by the army who brought tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators on to the streets of Islamabad in January.

Mr Khan and Mr Qadri may at least influence the make-up of the next parliament but Mr Musharraf has not been active enough on the ground to threaten the dominance of the traditional parties, including Mr Zardari’s Pakistan People’s party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N).

The sidelining of the once all-powerful Mr Musharraf, analysts agree, is exactly as it should be if Pakistan is indeed the nascent democracy that its civilian politicians claim.

In the past two weeks, the PPP government – less popular than when it started because of its failure to restore the economy to health or curb violent attacks by Islamists on Pakistani civilians – has finished its full term of office.

Raja Pervez Ashraf, the PPP prime minister, has stepped down and made way for an interim premier, Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, an 84-year-old former judge who was chosen without fuss by the election commission and will run the country until the election.

If all goes to plan, Pakistan, long plagued by military coups, assassinations and corruption, will replace one democratically elected government with another for the first time since independence and partition from India in 1947.

“The election calendar is on schedule and there are no disruptions to the system,” says Ms Chaudhary. “The elections are less than two months away. This is procedural democracy at work, when no one expected it to work.”

Samina Ahmed, south Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, has a similar view. “If this election is credible, impartial, free and fair, I think Pakistan has taken the next baby-step towards democratisation and stability.”

Events in Pakistan have a way of turning optimistic predictions to dust. Perhaps the Taliban will carry out its threat to kill Mr Musharraf. Maybe someone from the army will try to seize power. The elections could be marred by violence.

But the signs are that politicians staging dramatic comebacks will find it ever harder to convince a sceptical electorate. The voters are beginning to understand: Pakistan does not need returning saviours, military or civilian. It needs good government.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.