The Return of the General: Why Is Musharraf Running for Office in Pakistan?

His crowd of supporters seem to dwindle by the day but the former dictator of Pakistan is keen to prove that he still has the right stuff to lead the country

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Fareed Khan / AP

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, center, surrounded by bodyguards, walks toward the courtroom in Karachi on March 29, 2013

Pakistan’s former military ruler Pervez Musharraf had a rough day in court on Friday, having a shoe hurled at him as he was forced to appear in two murder cases to plead for bail. He secured bail but was barred from leaving the country. The ignominy added to the retired general’s troubles since he arrived back in Pakistan last week, ending four years in exile in Dubai and London, to make another bid for power at the elections in May. Ahead of his return, the Pakistani Taliban threatened to send a death squad to kill him. Once he landed at Karachi airport, fewer than 2,000 people were there to greet him in what was billed his great homecoming.

Musharraf heralded his day in court with a tweet, with a blurred picture of him hastening past the phone camera. The pensioned dictator has memorably claimed in interviews that his social-media following demonstrates his popularity in Pakistan. His Facebook page has 825,000 Likes. “Leaving to appear in court today,” he said, in the first time a former dictator has live-tweeted an audience with a judge. The Twitter account shows the former commando in action: training at the gym (“Feel very energized”), tasting Pakistani food (“The best cuisine in the world”), posing with a dwindled crowd of fans and showing off his farouche-looking armed bodyguard (“Taliban threat? NOT ON MY WATCH!!!”).

As a barrel-chested Musharraf strode into court, with flashing cameras retreating in front of him, a shoe zipped over their heads. The assailant was a lawyer, a familiar type of opponent. In 2007, during his last year in power, Musharraf sacked Pakistan’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry twice, sparking a lawyer-led movement that ultimately saw him resign as President of Pakistan the following year. Like most shoe hurlers, the lawyer, Tajamal Lodhi, was a terrible shot and missed his target by some distance. Local news channels gleefully played the footage several times. They too have a gripe with Musharraf: he shut down a number of independent news channels when he imposed a state of emergency in 2007.

(MORE: Angry Lawyer Throws Shoe at Pakistan’s Musharraf)

Lodhi, the lawyer, was released without charge. Musharraf, however, didn’t get off as easily. He managed to secure bail in the three cases he’s charged with involvement in: the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the death of Baloch leader Akbar Bugti and a case about his sacking of several judges in 2007. Musharraf’s troubled history with Pakistan’s judiciary made this a delicate moment. It was also the first time that a former Pakistani military ruler was appearing in court. In his tweets, Musharraf struck a deferential tone, referring to the judges as “honorable.” But the Sindh High Court also ruled that Musharraf would not be allowed to leave the country without their permission, placing his name on an “exit-control list.”

Over the next month, as campaigning for Pakistan’s general elections in May gets under way, Musharraf will be forced to appear at courts in different parts of the country to extend his bail. It is unlikely, however, that he will end up convicted of his involvement in either the Bhutto or Bugti assassinations. He is widely accused of failing to give Bhutto adequate security, including in a high-profile U.N. inquiry. In Bugti’s case, Musharraf notoriously remarked on television that he would “hit him from where he wouldn’t see it coming.” But the courts would need more evidence to establish culpability. “You would have to demonstrate liability in very direct terms,” says Feisal Naqvi, a leading Pakistani lawyer. “It would be very hard to prove this in court.”

Musharraf still manages to attract considerable attention in Pakistan. Many news channels broadcast his press conference live from the luxury hotel in Karachi where he is ensconced. The familiar bluff rhetoric was on display, with Musharraf controversially saying that Kargil — a military adventure he led as army chief in 1999 — was a success. But few believe that he will make a political impact. “Despite a very poor performance by the democratic government, people are not going to choose a former military ruler,” says retired Lieut. General Talat Masood, who was once close to Musharraf.

(MORE: Musharraf Returns to Pakistan Amid Death Threats)

After having ruled Pakistan for nine years, it is difficult to establish why Musharraf wants be involved in politics again. Some ascribe the decision to his vanity. “He’s fantasizing,” says Masood, the retired general. “He has highly exaggerated ideas about himself. He’s out of touch with reality. He certainly has a grand vision, but it’s about himself rather than the country.” The forthcoming elections have drawn a strange cast of characters, all vying for political power. At one point, A.Q. Khan, the notorious nuclear proliferator who has also established a political party, was thinking about fighting elections but dropped out yesterday. His election symbol was going to be a missile.

Beyond the trouble with the courts, Musharraf will also have a hard time campaigning. “This is why he won’t make an impact,” says Imran Khan, the former cricket legend turned politician who was imprisoned by Musharraf briefly in 2007. “We’ve not invented any way to deal with the suicide bomber. The only way to avoid one is to stay at home.” It’s a big risk to take for what looks to be a very small reward.

Musharraf insists that he will hit the campaign trail, and is tipped to possibly win a couple parliamentary seats, one in Karachi and one in Chitral. And if current opinion polls hold through the elections, Musharraf would be reduced to sitting as a lonely member in a Parliament headed by Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister he ousted in the 1999 coup that brought him to power.

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