KARACHI, Pakistan — Moments after he landed in Karachi, ending an almost four-year period of exile, former President Pervez Musharraf stopped to address a somewhat measly gathering of supporters.
“I have been ordered by my people to come back and save our Pakistan, even at the risk of my life,” he said before he was whisked away by security guards.
“Long live Musharraf!” they replied.
The crowds were decidedly smaller than Musharraf might have expected.
“I have more followers on the Facebook than Imran Khan,” he said during an earlier press conference in Dubai, referencing the former cricketer turned politician, who led a successful and large political demonstration in Lahore over the weekend. “I have more than 77,000 friends on Facebook.”
The measure of popularity Musharraf is using may be an indication that he has little understanding of the kind of support that awaits him as he re-enters Pakistan’s raucous political arena. Musharraf said he intends to lead his party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, in the 2013 general elections scheduled for May 11.
Representatives from Musharraf’s political machine were likely being optimistic when they said crowds of 50,000 or more would welcome the former dictator at Jinnah’s Mausoleum. The event never happened. It was canceled after the Taliban released a statement claiming they had prepared a death squad to send Musharraf back to “hell.”
The unremarkable welcome Musharraf received at the Karachi airport will likely be the only public show of support for the former military general, who gained power in a bloodless coup in 1999.
Security concerns have thwarted several attempts by Musharraf over the last four years to make his return. Legal concerns may have also played a role in his prolonged absence. He faces three criminal charges, one of which accuses him of culpability in the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
However small, Musharraf may be able to find some pockets of support. In the eight years that he governed Pakistan — first as a dictator, then as president — Pakistan underwent its longest period of sustained economic growth. A growing middle class and the development of a more aggressive and independent media marked his tenure.
But he began to lose support in 2007, after he sacked the chief justice of the Supreme Court. He was forced to step down in 2008, facing accusations that he never gave up his authoritarian tendencies.
Experts in Pakistan say it’s unlikely that Musharraf really has the backing he needs to progress in the elections. Many in Pakistan greeted his initial announcement with ridicule and rage.
“I am feeling concerned about the unknown … there are a lot of unknown factors of terrorism and extremism, unknown factors of legal issues, unknown factors of how much I will be able to perform [In the elections],” he said from Dubai before embarking on his flight.
He’ll have only two months to convince Pakistan’s residents that he and his political party can deliver results. Musharraf’s party performed poorly in the 2008 general elections and, since then, several key members have defected to competing parties.
For now, Musharraf is expected to contest three seats simultaneously — in Karachi, Lahore and Chitral, a region in Pakistan’s northwest where Musharraf successfully created a tunnel that cut through the mountains.
Analysts say that his hopes for success, which are slim, lie with the country’s businessmen. Many of them are nostalgic for the good old days of economic boom — in Pakistani terms — during Musharraf’s rule. Though he may also have some support within the country’s military, many have sought to distance themselves from him and his policies.
In Karachi’s liberal, elite circles, many remember Musharraf fondly, remarking that during his time in office, violent murders and terrorist attacks had largely abated in the city.
“Five years ago Pakistan was a country reaching levels of economic prosperity,” said Humayoun Ishaq, a Musharraf supporter who waited greeted the leader at the airport.
“My business, which is textiles, really saw international trade pick up,” Ishaq said. “Many of my colleagues also think Musharraf is the only way we can get out from the international debt and misery that we are currently in.”
Huma Yusuf, a Pakistani journalist, said that segment of society, however, is far removed from the democratic ideals that are shaping the upcoming elections — the first time in Pakistan's history that a civilian government will hand power over to another civilian elected government. Musharraf will be lucky to win even a few seats.
One party official admitted to GlobalPost that the country’s business elite offered Musharraf his best shot.
“Many of them really reaped the benefits of his economic policies and they’ll realize that he’s the only one that can deliver those kinds of results again.”