Pervez Musharraf, the former chief of the Pakistani military who seized political power in a 1999 coup and then ruled as president for a decade, was formally indicted for the murder of former P.M. Benazir Bhutto on Tuesday.
Musharraf, who was chased out of power by an uprising fueled by Pakistan’s legal establishment five years ago, recently returned to contest elections, but was hamstrung by outstanding legal challenges to his autocratic rule. When coupled with the election of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — the man who promoted Musharraf during his most recent stint as P.M. only to be ousted by him — the indictment of Musharraf suggests the loosening of the military’s grip on public life, as one of its own former leaders facing execution would have been unthinkable until quite recently. Yet Sharif and the legal establishment that is tacitly backing his new administration need to beware overstepping and inviting some kind of pushback from the armed forces (after all, he got along well with the generals initially in his second term only to face setbacks in the Kargil War, ones the military was not prepared to take the fall for). So a prison term that is substantial without appearing too vindictive is the best medicine here, especially since Sharif is already prodding the military when it comes to negotiating with the Taliban. In his first televised speech since taking office on Monday, he tried to straddle that fine line, indicating an openness to peace talks while denouncing violent extremists as an existential threat to the country that he would not hesitate to crush with force.
The delicate feelings of those at the head of the security establishment notwithstanding, having Pakistan’s legal system formally bring Musharraf to account would be a massive P.R. coup for Sharif and might resonate throughout the region. Indeed, it brings the wealthy industrialist full circle as a key player in public life. The only problem is that the Musharraf trial and violent attacks by Islamic groups have taken the focus of Pakistan’s political elite off of the economy and in particular electricity shortages, and it is on the backs of those issues that Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League performed so well in elections. In that sense, he may find symbolic victories (like a Musharraf trial) have a limited long-term utility. This is a victory in the eyes of Pakistani’s power-brokers and bolsters the perception of the new regime. It does not lock in security for Sharif and his new government — and given his failure to enact structural economic reforms in the 1990s, executing any kind of significant infrastructure modernization would be a more electorally potent move.