KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — Former President Pervez Musharraf returned home Sunday hoping to make a political comeback despite Taliban death threats and looming arrest warrants. But judging by the lackluster crowd at the airport to greet him, his biggest challenge could be his waning popularity.
His return comes as Pakistan is poised to transition from one democratically elected government to another — a first for a country that has experienced three coups since its 1947 inception. After years on the margins of Pakistani politics, Musharraf is seeking to rebuild his image, hoping to capitalize on an electorate frustrated with five years of rising inflation, rolling blackouts and security problems.
Musharraf, a four-star general who was chief of the army, took power in a 1999 coup and his military-led regime steered the country for nearly a decade until he was forced to step down in 2008 as president. Confronted with mounting criticism and widespread protests after he tried to dismiss a popular chief justice, he left facing impeachment by the newly elected parliament.
He later left the country and has been living between London and Dubai ever since.
The former Pakistani strongman had promised to return to his homeland many times before. He finally followed through, boarding a plane in Dubai with supporters and journalists and flying to the southern port metropolis of Karachi, the largest city in the nation.
Stepping out of the terminal, surrounded by police and supporters, he portrayed himself as a savior seeking to return the country to the prosperity and stability that supporters say marked his presidency.
"I have come back for you. I want you to get back the Pakistan that I had left when we used to feel proud in ourselves," he said.
Musharraf represents a polarizing force that could further complicate Pakistan's attempt to hold parliamentary elections on May 11. The country passed another milestone Sunday when the election commission appointed a caretaker prime minister to run the government ahead of elections, a step that is designed to promote electoral independence.
Musharraf's supporters, including elements of the military and members of Pakistan's influential expatriate communities, consider him a strong leader whose voice could help stabilize the country. Nostalgia for Musharraf's days in power was evident among members of the crowd who turned out to see him at the airport.
"At that time, we had employment. We had jobs. There was peace. It was 100,000 times better than today," said Muhammed Iqbal from Karachi.
Musharraf is fondly remembered by many people in this city of 18 million people where he heavily backed the Muttahida Quami Movement — the city's dominant political party.
But Musharraf's welcoming party, estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000, was small compared with the hundreds of thousands of people who thronged this same terminal when Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan or the tens of thousands who turned out Saturday night for a rally in Lahore for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
Supporters threw rose petals and enthusiastically waved flags emblazoned with pictures of Musharraf and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, but their energy did not mask their numbers.
"If he claims nationwide support, that would be a joke," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, from the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "I have never seen such a misplaced optimism about oneself."
Musharraf was whisked out of the airport inside an armored vehicle, surrounded by a phalanx of police and paramilitary security forces. It was a reminder of the security threats Musharraf faces.
The former general angered many militants with his decision in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to back the U.S. in its invasion of Afghanistan and cut off ties with the Taliban. Militants as well as many other Pakistanis saw him as carrying out the American agenda in Pakistan.
Militants were further infuriated with Musharraf when he decided in 2007 to raid a mosque in Islamabad that had become a center for militants opposed to the U.S. Pakistani officials said 102 people, mostly supporters of the mosque, died in the week-long operation.
The Pakistan Taliban vowed to kill him in a video released on Saturday. One of the featured speakers in the video — former Pakistan Air Force officer Adnan Rashid — was convicted of helping plot an assassination attempt against Musharraf back in 2003 when a suicide bomber tried to ram his vehicle. Rashid was imprisoned, but he escaped during a jail break orchestrated by the Taliban. In the video, he said Musharraf should surrender himself to the Taliban or prepare to be hit again.
"The mujahedeen of Islam have prepared a death squad to send Pervez Musharraf to hell," Rashid warned.
A serious security threat prompted the Pakistani police to cancel a rally that supporters had wanted to hold for Musharraf Sunday afternoon near Jinnah's mausoleum. And organizers at the airport repeatedly asked his boisterous supporters to move away from the front of the terminal so Musharraf could go outside to greet people.
The former president plans to spend a few days at a hotel in Karachi, where he and his team will hash out their plan for the upcoming election, said spokeswoman Saima Ali Dada. He will then travel to Islamabad. Meanwhile, his legal team will meet to decide the best way to respond to the charges against him.
Musharraf has been implicated in the 2007 assassination of Bhutto, as well as the killing of Akbar Bugti, a Baluch nationalist leader who died in August 2006 after a standoff with the Pakistani military. In another case, he's accused of illegally removing a number of judges, including the chief justice of the supreme court.
His return to Pakistan was made easier when a court in Sindh province where Karachi is located granted him preemptive bail, which essentially meant he could not be arrested immediately upon landing. But he must appear before a court within 10 days, and there is no guarantee that he won't be arrested in the future.
Human Rights Watch has called on the Pakistani government to prosecute him for abuses he is alleged to have committed during his time in office.
Regardless of his political future, Musharraf appeared happy to be back on Pakistani soil.
Soon after he landed, Musharraf tweeted: "Thrilled to be back home."
Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.