After more than four years in self-imposed exile, Pervez Musharraf, who led Pakistan for nearly a decade, returned to his homeland this week.
The former army chief, who grabbed power in a military coup in 1999, hopes to reclaim a role in national life by leading his party in historic elections in seven weeks' time.
He was greeted at the VIP terminal at Karachi airport by about 1500 people – a small crowd by the standard of Pakistani politics. Many of his supporters claimed police blocked people from coming to the airport but there were no signs of any restrictions on the roads.
It was a far cry from Benazir Bhutto's ill-fated return from exile in 2007, when vast crowds flocked into the streets. Bhutto was killed when the slow-moving procession from the airport in Karachi was attacked by a suicide bomber, and senior police officials say they have been inundated with threats against Musharraf too.
Last Saturday, the Pakistani Taliban released a video in which Adnan Rashid, a former air force officer who has previously attempted to assassinate Musharraf, boasted that the organisation had prepared a "death squad for Musharraf".
Officials in Karachi refused to grant Musharraf permission to travel in a procession to the grand tomb of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father.
"Where has the Pakistan I left five years ago gone?" Musharraf asked.
Willingness to take risks
"My heart cries tears of blood when I see the state of the country today. I have come back for you. I want to restore the Pakistan I left."
Musharraf has a small but committed fan base in Pakistan. "He is an honest man, a risk-taker and a go-getter," said Farooq Dawood, a retired naval officer.
"He could have continued enjoying a very good life in Dubai but he would rather be here trying to serve his country."
Despite Musharraf's willingness to take risks, he avoided coming back to Pakistan while the threat of arrest hung over him, preferring instead to bide his time in London and Dubai. He faces charges of failing to provide adequate security to Bhutto on her return, for the alleged murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti, and for treason, in the case of his sacking of Pakistan's top judges in 2007.
But last week Musharraf was granted protective bail by a judge, meaning there was no risk of his being arrested the moment he stepped off the plane. The decision prompted Human Rights Watch to warn that he should not be allowed "to elude serious legal proceedings".
His old political enemies also seem to have softened their line, apparently no longer seeing him as any great threat. The PML-N, the faction of the Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister deposed by Musharraf in 1999, has softened its tone over the former dictator, saying all Pakistani citizens have a right to live in their country.
The return to democracy in 2008 has not impressed Musharraf's supporters, who despair at the record of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which swept to power at the head of a coalition government after Bhutto was assassinated.
"Democracy is not working in Pakistan," said Moiz Iqbal, a 24-year-old accountancy student. "People are poor. We just want peace and economic stability. It doesn't matter if we are a democracy or a dictatorship as long as we have peace, employment and a good economy."
Despite persistent fears that democracy in Pakistan will once again be interrupted, the country continues to move remorselessly towards historic general elections on May 11, which, if successful, will be the first time one democratically elected government has handed over power to another.
In another important step, the election commission of Pakistan last Saturday announced that Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, an 84-year-old retired judge, would serve as interim prime minister in the run-up to election day.
Meanwhile, the country's two biggest parties, the PPP and the PML-N, continue to make preparations for what is set to be a tightly fought campaign.
Imran Khan, a rising politician determined to challenge the established parties, has also been ramping up his campaign. Last Saturday, he attracted crowds estimated to be in excess of 100000 to a mass rally in Lahore held by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Few analysts believe Musharraf's All Pakistan Muslim League will be anything more than a sideshow to the three-way tussle between the PPP, the PML and the PTI.
Talat Masood, a retired general who knows Musharraf well, said the former president had greatly overestimated his importance in the country.
"He will create only a few ripples here and there but, at the moment, [he] does not have a political constituency, does not have an organisation and his support [is] very limited," he said.
Raza Rumi, director of the Jinnah Institute think-tank, said the former army chief suffered from "delusions of grandeur".
"He truly does not have much of a support base," he said. "Some of the urban, middle-class people, who say his rule was good for the economy, may like him."
Musharraf, who appears to gauge his support partly on Facebook followers (of which he claims he has more than cricketer Imran Khan), may even struggle to win a seat. – © Guardian News & Media 2013