BY Carol Grisanti, NBC News Producer
LONDON – Pledging to bring change to Pakistan’s widely discredited political establishment, the country’s former army strongman has vowed to run for president in the 2013 general election.
“I want to be elected through a democratic process,” General Pervez Musharraf, who swept away a democratically elected but corruption-riddled civilian government in a 1999 coup, told a couple hundred cheering supporters at a posh private club in London on Friday.
While few Pakistanis ever believed that their former president would do what old generals are supposed to do and “just fade away,” Musharraf has seized a moment of intense political turmoil to launch his political comeback from exile.
‘Human beings make mistakes’
Musharraf, relaxed and sartorially elegant in finely cut gray wool suit, admitted to errors during his rule, especially in his ninth and last year as the country’s military dictator. (He fired the chief justice of the Supreme Court, suspended the constitution and declared a state of emergency, among other things.)
“Human beings make mistakes,” the 67-year-old said. “I take this opportunity to apologize.”
It was a powerful moment. This was the first Pakistani leader ever to admit faults in his leadership and then tell the nation he was sorry.
Playing to the one million Pakistanis living in Britain and the even more millions listening back home, Musharraf said he learned his lessons and was ready to lead again.
He vowed to bring Pakistan away from its feudal culture, referring to the beleaguered government of Asif Ali Zardari, the current president and widower of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He also promised that his new political party, The All Pakistan Muslim League, would unite all Pakistanis regardless of sect, religion or tribe.
Now may be the right time for Musharraf’s re-emergence.
His charisma complimented by his innate military bearing may help convince many of his fellow Pakistanis that he is the man to bring change. Many are unhappy with a spiralling Islamic insurgency, a collapsing economy, and the government’s handling of the worst floods in the country’s history.
“Musharraf is trying to capture the present mindset among Pakistanis, especially among the younger people,” said Humayun Gauhar, a prominent political and military analyst. “The younger generation craves a new political system, they want to break away from the feudal class and the ruling elite who behave like they own the county.”
Popular on Facebook
The former general does have a narrow base of political support back in Pakistan and is popular on Facebook, where many of his hundreds of thousands of followers are under 30 years old. Still, an election win would be difficult.
During his party’s official debut, Musharraf spoke in Urdu for an hour and then for another hour in English. He warned of the growing gap between the very rich and the very poor in his country and said Pakistanis are also frustrated by the country’s rapid economic decline.
But many Pakistanis blame Musharraf for the countless problems the country faces today.
An overwhelming majority in the country are anti-American and accuse him of selling out to president George W. Bush after the Sept 11 attacks in 2001, when he allied Pakistan with the U.S. war on terror.
That alliance propelled the fiercely independent Pashtun tribes in the northwest of the country to join forces with the Taliban and al-Qaida to fight the U.S. and the Pakistani government. The tribes felt betrayed – they still regard the Afghan war along their borders as America’s war against the Pashtuns.
In London, the former commando defended his stance against the militants and insisted that unless Pakistan remained part of the war against extremism “that fight cannot succeed.” In his party’s manifesto, he declared a “zero tolerance for terrorism.”
But Musharraf’s critics accuse him of playing a double game while in power – banning some militant groups while turning a blind eye toward those who served the army’s interests against archrival India.
‘Chance to fill a vacuum’
Pakistani author and journalist, Zahid Hussain, said he had been skeptical about Musharraf’s political launch until he heard him speak.
“I think he could have a chance to fill a vacuum in the country,” Hussain said. “He might be able to mobilize a large section of the population, including the business community, who are completely fed up with the present system. I am not saying he can do it, I’m saying he might have a chance to do it.”
If some were contemplating that perhaps times weren’t so bad after all under Musharraf, back home TV channels devoted hours of airtime to leaders of opposition parties and pundits who gave him no chance at all.
Not that many are giving the present government much of a chance of finishing its full 5-year term, either. In fact, most Pakistanis feel things have never been worse, but few know how to fix the country’s entrenched problems.
Requesting anonymity, a close aide of Pakistan’s military chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, said his boss has definitely ruled out a military coup. The main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, does not have the numbers in parliament to call for a vote of no confidence against the government.
That leaves the Supreme Court.
The judges are angling for a showdown with President Zardari, perhaps this month, to remove the immunity he enjoys as the country’s president and restore old corruption cases against him. In that case, Zardari is expected to dig in his heels and fight back.
In the more than 60 years since the British partitioned the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan became a separate state, the contenders for the country’s top job – always recycled among a Bhutto, a Sharif or an army general – have thrived on the urgency and the uproar of the moment to rise phoenix-like from the ashes.
If Musharraf does attempt a return, he too would risk arrest for treason or deportation – reminiscent of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif when they tried to re-launch their political comebacks from London.
Then there are the dangers of assassination from the militants he tried to eliminate when he was in office. Musharraf said he is not deterred.
“I am not afraid,” he declared.
Such is the way of Pakistani politics.
NBC’s Fakhar Rehman contributed reporting from Islamabad.