RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf has returned home after four years of self-imposed exile in Dubai and London. Security was unusually tight as he arrived at Karachi Airport today. The Pakistani Taliban has issued threats to kill the former president. And a Pakistani court has named Musharraf for possible involvement in the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Joining us now from Islamabad is NPR's Julie McCarthy. Hi, Julie.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hi.
MARTIN: So, why now? Why is Musharraf ending his self-imposed exile and returning home?
MCCARTHY: Well, it's in the hope of returning to power and by capturing the election, which was just declared for May 11th. Musharraf, who's 69, told a crowd at the airport today, "I got orders from the people of Pakistan to come and save Pakistan." Now, people who know him well say he's deeply homesick, but some columnists here and a lot of journalists and observers of the scene in Pakistan are calling his return politically naive, perhaps egomaniacal. And they wonder aloud whether this isn't a man's personal battle against irrelevance, against the idea that his day has come and gone.
MARTIN: As we mentioned, he's been in self-imposed exile. But remind us, Julie, why he left Pakistan in 2008 in the first place.
MCCARTHY: Well, he accumulated a lot of power and he accumulated a lot of enemies by overreaching with that power. He jailed political activists. He removed members of the judiciary, including Supreme Court justices. He was vilified by militants for joining the U.S. war on terror after September 11th. He declared a state of emergency to reassert some of his fading powers, and then the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, as you mentioned, turned public opinion even more decisively against him. His party lost parliamentary elections to his enemies - that would be Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party - and her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, formed the new government that threatened Musharraf with impeachment. So, he went into exile, formed his own party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, but most independent analysts view it as politically marginal. He has posted bail in the main legal cases against him, which has cleared the way for his return.
MARTIN: Julie, is he going to be met with a different kind of Pakistan than the one he left? I mean, after all, Pakistan did just mark something unusual in its history, right? An elected president served an entire term.
MCCARTHY: That's exactly right. And that's the frame in which this thing has to be seen. For the first time in 65 years of its history, a democratically elected government has just completed its five-year term. It's seen as a watershed for this place. And so this is a different Pakistan from the one Musharraf left. And there is a huge mountain for him to climb as a result of that. Now, plenty of Pakistanis took issue with the government of President Asif Al Zardari, whose term has just ended. It was mired in corruption scandals and allegations of malfeasance and graft and openly fought with the Supreme Court. But flaws and all, Rachel, Pakistanis like determining their own leaders. And while they may feel patriotic about their army, they don't want to be governed by it. And though he's now a civilian, Musharraf's legacy is as a military dictator.
MARTIN: So, is he popular at all, Julie? I mean, how much support does he really have in the army or among business leaders or just the general population?
MCCARTHY: Well, I think the best way to answer that is by way of a comparison. Musharraf was greeted not by throngs of supporters today. It was not an overwhelming presence of people, more in the hundreds of people. What was overwhelming is the comeback of sorts for Imran Khan, the cricket star-turned-politician here. He ignited a huge crowd in Lahore yesterday of some 80,000 people. Storms rolled in, cut his speech short, but even the foul weather didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd - many of them young, who were on their feet when Imran Khan told them I'll always tell you the truth, I'll establish the supremacy of law, I won't have property and bank accounts abroad, no nepotism in my government. So, Musharraf's been gone for four years, and by the sound of it Pakistan has moved on. For many Pakistanis, he is seen as yesterday's man, and that's not how the youth of Pakistan views Imran Khan, for example. So, that's the reality that Musharraf finds himself in the run-up to the May election.
MARTIN: NPR's Julie McCarthy speaking to us from Islamabad, Pakistan. Julie, thanks so much.
MCCARTHY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.