NEW YORK - The American print and electronic media Saturday highlighted former President Pervez Musharraf’s planned return to Pakistan from exile, but a State Department spokesperson parried a reporter’s question whether the Pakistani leader had Washington’s ‘blessings’.
“The only thing I would say about this is that it is up to the people of Pakistan to decide who their representatives should be, according to their democratic process,” Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said at the daily press briefing.
Nuland made that comment when an Indian reporter specifically asked if Musharraf - who, he said, ran Pakistan well - had US help in his moves. She did not elaborate.
About the upcoming elections in the wake of the historic completion of the five-year parliamentary term, the spokesperson said “We do understand that Pakistan has announced the date for the National Assembly elections of May 11th.
“We look forward to timely, free, and fair elections that are going to result in the first civilian, democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s history,” Nuland said.
Asked if the US is sending any observers for the polls, the spokesperson replied: “We obviously will look to the Government of Pakistan with regard to any help or support they might need,” she added, when asked during the daily briefing whether the US was sending any observers for the polls.
The spokesperson explained the United States has a number of ongoing programmes that support clean, fair elections in Pakistan.
For example, she said, the US provides support through local organisations to encourage voter participation among groups that have historically low turnout, such as women. Washington also provides grants for two-way communication forums for citizens to discuss the election process.
“We also fund training for poll workers. The total amount of that assistance is about $6.5 million. But to date, we haven’t had any request from the Government of Pakistan for concrete support for the election itself,” she said.
The US support is covered by the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act under which Pakistan receives development aid, Nuland added.
Meanwhile, The Christian Science Monitor on Friday called the completion by the Pakistani civilian government of its five-year term as a ‘milestone’, saying, “A peaceful transition would be quite an achievement for a nation with a history of military coups, massive corruption, terrorist bombings, factional politics, high-level assassinations, paranoia about India, and devastating floods and earthquakes.”
In an editorial, the newspaper said, “Most of all, it would signify progress toward Pakistan seeing itself as both a Muslim and democratic state. The conflict between those two identities has dogged the South Asian nation ever since independence 66 years ago, with jihadists often allowed to operate openly.
“The May elections will also mark the first time that political parties will be allowed to compete for the vote in the tribal areas, home to the most radical groups. The nation’s constitutional process will be geographically complete.”
Discussing Musharraf’s prospects if he goes back to Pakistan, The Washington Post said the former president “risks at least three undesired consequences: jail, assassination — or public indifference.
“A return to power? Highly unlikely, even his supporters say”.
Citing analysts, correspondent Richard Leiby of the Post said his return could stoke a potentially destabilising confrontation between the judiciary and the military if a court orders his arrest. “The betting is that the army that he served in for more than 40 years would defend him against going to jail, even though his popularity among the military is no longer strong,” the dispatch said.
“Then again, Musharraf may receive a collective yawn from everyone except the fevered media if, as promised, he lands Sunday in Karachi on an Emirates Airlines flight from Dubai, his home in exile. Reporters scrambled to reserve seats on the plane, even though the retired general has scrubbed previous avowed returns.
“No one really can predict how the Musharraf wild card would affect elections set for May 11, but parlour-game speculation is rampant about the arrival – or not - of the bridge-playing former military leader.
“His boosters contend that the public yearns for the stability and better economic times often associated with the Musharraf era, which ended in 2008, because they’ve been hammered by five years of inflation, joblessness and worsening energy shortages under the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
“Musharraf, 69, has never run for office, but his ego appears up to the job: He possesses a stubborn certitude about his value to the nation...
“Commentators call Musharraf’s decision to return home politically naive, driven by hubris and desire for validation by the voters.”
Quoting political observers, the Post said Musharraf’s new party – the All Pakistan Muslim League — would be lucky to gain a handful of seats in Parliament, largely because it will not garner enough support from other parties to build a meaningful coalition...
“A hoped-for Musharraf coalition would include Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician who has stirred a youthful following with his campaign against political business as usual; and Muhammad Tahirul Qadri, a Canadian-Pakistani cleric who rallied tens of thousands of demonstrators in Islamabad recently with slogans against predatory politicians who ignore the privations of the common man.
“But neither Khan nor Qadri has yet exhibited a public willingness to pair up with anyone, let alone Musharraf.
“The retired four-star general also is unpopular for allying closely with the United States after the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks — a policy many Pakistanis now see as a mistake that ultimately dragged the country into a still-raging war with a native Taliban insurgency.
A dispatch from Islamabad in The New York Times said “Pakistani military lore is obsessed with the romance of the daredevil commando, parachuting into hostile territory and taking the fight to the enemy despite daunting odds.
“So it is, in a manner of speaking, with Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s onetime military ruler and a former commando, as he prepares to return from exile this Sunday, in the face of stiff and perhaps violent opposition, to marshal his fledgling political party for the general election on May 11...
“His supporters have hired a team of bodyguards that includes retired commandos, have paid for an expensive television advertising campaign heralding his return and have bought several new bulletproof vehicles.
“Mr Musharraf himself has admitted that if he does not return this time his political ambitions may be finished...
“Even if he makes it, a phalanx of challenges await him. First among them is security: the Pakistani Taliban and Baloch nationalists, both of which tried to assassinate Mr Musharraf while he was in power, have pledged to redouble their efforts if he returns.
“In the courts, he faces criminal charges, and possible jail time, in relation to three cases, including the death of Benazir Bhutto, the former opposition leader, who was killed in 2007 while Mr Musharraf was president. He has dismissed those cases as ‘concocted’, but they could ultimately be decided by his old nemesis, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry — the judge whom Mr Musharraf tried, and failed, to depose in 2007.
“The favourite to win the coming election, meanwhile, is Nawaz Sharif — the former prime minister whom Mr Musharraf toppled in 1999 before dispatching him into exile in Saudi Arabia a year later. For a time, Mr Sharif regularly called for Mr Musharraf to be tried — and hanged — for treason.
“Even the army is thought to feel lukewarm about its longtime supreme commander. Some senior generals privately blame Mr Musharraf for the country’s woes, including his once cozy relationship with the United States.
“For others, though, the high-stakes return is an act of characteristic arrogance — a rash impulse born out of some sense of messianic destiny...
Still, Musharraf and his supporters — including industrialists, wealthy members of the Pakistani diaspora and a handful of politicians — assert that a comeback is no long shot...
He may also have smoothed things over with his old rival, Mr Sharif. Rumour in political and diplomatic circles this week had it that the two recently held a private meeting in Dubai. And in a television interview this week, Mr Sharif struck a strikingly conciliatory tone on the subject of Mr Musharraf...
“Despite all the preparation, it is unclear how much actual support Musharraf can muster. He will, in effect, be throwing himself at the mercy of voters.”