Can Musharraf Save Pakistan?
Pakistan's former president, Pervez Musharraf, recently announced from the UK his return to politics by formally launching a new political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML). While he apologises for his past political mistakes - particularly the promulgation of the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) which granted amnesty to politicians and bureaucrats accused of corruption and other crimes - and pledges to take the country out of the current morass, it remains to be seen whether, if given the opportunity, he could successfully help Pakistan to overcome the various challenges it is facing.
Pakistan is currently confronted with crippling poverty, flood relief, an internal war against extremists, ineffective governance and a host of other significant problems. Given that Musharraf had the opportunity to govern Pakistan for over eight years, from October 1999 to August 2008, walking back into the minefield of Pakistani politics with a military background and a not-so-spotless record as head of state, he will have to restore his credibility with the Pakistani people, and convince them that he can provide solutions to put the country back on track.
Current President Asif Ali Zardari's approval ratings have plummeted to an all-time low of 32 per cent, reflecting the public's disappointment with the present government. This may provide Musharraf an opening to return to Pakistani politics. However, his popularity among the masses is unclear, as are his chances of success.
What voters need to know before the next election in 2013 is what Musharraf and the APML can really offer the Pakistani people.
Musharraf claims that his party's goal is putting Pakistan "on a democratic path", one that is not "artificial" or "make-believe", referring to the lofty promises that former presidential candidates have made in the past. But these kinds of broad pronouncements are not sufficient to capture the attention of Pakistani voters. The APML will need to offer specific solutions to the issues troubling the public.
The economy is one important area that will require long-term rehabilitative measures, especially after the recent floods destroyed much of the country's agricultural crops and rendered a considerable area of Pakistan's farmland unusable for the coming years.
As a new political contender, the APML has to develop economic policies that will not only help farmers and landowners raise crops again, but which will also involve comprehensive reforms to improve the country's financial system and move toward broadening Pakistan's tax base.
Currently, less than two per cent of the country's 180 million citizens pay any tax on their income. Further reforms might include shifting budget allocation trends from defence to education, healthcare and development sectors.
Not only does Musharraf have to contend with the grave issues facing Pakistan's existence, he must also deal with questions surrounding his candidacy. Musharraf's bid to run for prime minister in the next general election is likely to be met with staunch opposition from Pakistan's two major political parties, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), whose leadership has frequently scorned the former general for his political ambitions. In a recent interview Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani mocked Musharraf's political plans, saying the country's chief justice will greet him on his return to Pakistan, referring to the cases that have been initiated against Musharraf in Pakistani courts.
Indeed, there is a possibility of legal action being taken against him, including charges in regard to the killing of Baloch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti and relating to the disappearance of Atiq-ur Rehman, a Pakistani scientist associated with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. Musharraf, however, has blamed "political elements" for engineering these cases to prevent him from regaining power.
Despite these obstacles, the "born optimist" - as Musharraf calls himself - is apologising for mistakes he made in the past and promising Pakistanis "a new social contract" for a more hopeful future. It is clear he is determined to lead the country again.
Musharraf's return could help diversify the country's political landscape, encourage political reconciliation, possibly revive the economy and enforce a firm anti-terror policy, not only building his own credibility, but strengthening Pakistan in the process.