Former president of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf’s recent admission that he misused American aid money while in office appears to be part of a strategy aimed at paving a way for his eventual return to power.
Musharraf’s statements to Pakistani TV channel Express News on September 14 that he used American money intended for fighting the Taleban to strengthen defences against India seemed misguided. In fact, they may have been a carefully calculated move.
His remarks appear to have been designed to position him as a patriot – an attempt to rehabilitate his image and increase support for him among the Pakistani public after being widely perceived as an American puppet during his nine-year rule.
He was unapologetic after his September 14 comments, “Whoever wishes to be angry, let them be angry…We have to maintain our security, and the Americans should know…that we won't compromise our security.”
The remarks have also have two important – and seemingly intentional - consequences which will further strengthen his hand for a return to power at the next scheduled elections in 2013.
They have weakened the Pakistani government’s relationship with the United States, in the face of current American worries about the use of aid. And they deepened the deadlock between the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, PPP, and the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz PML-N, by forcing the contentious issue of Musharraf’s possible trial to the top of the political agenda.
The former president appears to have calculated that the PPP would block a trial, yet he knows that the opposition will continue to push for such a trial to take place.
By simultaneously damaging the government internationally and stoking domestic political chaos, Musharraf has opened the way for Pakistan’s third party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid-e-Azam, PML-Q. He has been rebuilding his former alliance with them, suggesting he is preparing for a return to office.
His admission seems likely to have damaged the delicate relationship between the PPP and the US. Amid mounting concerns over the current Pakistani government’s use of aid, a bill crafted by Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar which proposes tripling aid to Pakistan for the next five years has had Congress locked in debate for almost three months.
Musharraf seems to have timed his comments to exploit US worries, coming just days before an American delegation arrived in Islamabad to review aid spending. Although he later retracted the remarks, the apparently deliberate damage was done.
His admission also deepened the split between the two main parties by sparking renewed demands from Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif that Musharraf be tried for high treason.
The PPP appears to want to avoid a trial, which would both break a “safe exit” deal it granted Musharraf in 2008 and implicate some of its own ministers.
The PPP is also indebted to Musharraf for immunities he gave its leaders while in power, in an amnesty under the October 2007 National Reconciliation Ordinance which enabled PPP leaders to return from exile and contest the 2008 election. Farzana Sheikh, of London think tank Chatham House, says that Pakistani president and PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari effectively owes his presidency to Musharraf.
Although the amnesty also covered Sharif, he has no reason to seek Musharraf’s favour. In February 2009, judges installed by Musharraf reopened a case against Sharif, temporarily threatening his political career.
Sharif gathered significant support during 2008 by championing a popular campaign to reinstate judges sacked by Musharraf. The PPP was eventually forced to give way. Sharif seems to believe that a similar campaign to try Musharraf would play well with the public, but the PPP is unlikely to give into him again. Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani said recently that pursuing a trial was “not doable”.
That Musharraf is plotting a comeback is becoming increasingly evident.
In May 2009, he hinted to CNN that he would “do something for” Pakistan if it was “in trouble”; and on August 24 Musharraf’s counsel, Fawad Chaudhury, told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn that Musharraf was “mulling all options to play a direct or indirect role in the country’s politics”.
Chaudhury also revealed that Musharraf was urging PML-Q to reunite after it split into two blocs earlier this year. On September 8, Dawn quoted associates of Musharraf as saying he was in “constant touch” with the PML-Q’s breakaway faction, which could provide the former president with a way back into Pakistani politics.
Musharraf’s chance will come at the next scheduled elections in 2013. This seems to worry Sharif’s PML-N, as demonstrated by its recent call for snap mid-term elections in 2009-10. A mid-term poll would take place before the expiry of a two-year ban on Musharraf re-entering politics.
However, the PPP dismissed the calls, and a 2013 election is still the probable scenario. By then, the way things are going, both the main parties are likely to have been damaged by years of deadlock. Zardari’s PPP has already lost much of its popularity because of its failure to form a workable coalition. Musharraf, on the other hand, will have had time to build up popular support and consolidate a relationship with the PML-Q.
Musharraf’s admission on US aid should serve as a warning to both the ruling party and its main rival that he retains more influence than they might have thought.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.