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Pakistan’s president refuses to step down after election rout

Pakistan’s president refuses to step down after election rout
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First Published: Wed, Feb 20 2008. 03 47 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Feb 20 2008. 03 47 PM IST
Islamabad: President Pervez Musharraf intends to serve out his five-year term as head of state and will not step down, his spokesman says, despite a sweeping election victory by his opponents, some of whom want to drive him from power.
Final results from this week’s parliamentary poll were expected Wednesday, but with the count nearly complete, two opposition parties have won enough seats to form a new government, though they will likely fall short of the two-thirds needed to impeach the president.
So far, they have garnered 154 of the 268 contested seats, according to the Election Commission.
But Musharraf’s spokesman Rashid Qureshi said Tuesday the president intends to work with the new government and will serve out his term that expires in 2012.
“The people on Monday didn’t vote to elect a new president,” he said. “In fact, they participated in the elections to elect the new parliament.”
The new government, expected to be installed by mid-March, will determine how to tackle the country’s formidable challenges, including rising prices and the threat from Islamic extremism.
Pakistan’s new leaders must also decide how to deal with Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and went on to become a key ally in the US war on terror, an unpopular decision in the Muslim nation of 160 million.
His decisions to suspend the constitution, purge the judiciary and round up political opponents sent his approval ratings plummeting, and the sound defeat suffered by the pro-Musharraf party was widely seen as a repudiation of the president.
Speaking Tuesday in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N, recalled statements by Musharraf last year that he would step down if he lost the support of the Pakistani people.
“He has closed his eyes,” Sharif told reporters in Lahore. “He has said before that he would go when the people want him to do so and now the people have given their verdict.”
Sharif is expected to meet shortly with Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party of slain ex-premier Benazir Bhutto, whose party won the most seats and is now discussing with various political leaders the possibility of forming a broad-based coalition government.
A spokesman for Sharif’s party, the PML-N, said it would support Zardari to form a “stable government” although it would not seek positions in the Cabinet.
“We only want them (Bhutto’s party) to reinstate judges and roll back constitutional changes made by Musharraf,” said the spokesman, Sadiq ul-Farooq.
Sharif’s demand to restore judges sacked by Musharraf could leave him at odds the PPP, which says Parliament should decide the issue.
Sharif’s party may focus on controlling the largest province of Punjab, where it won the most seats in the provincial assembly, and play a less active role in a federal government led by the PPP, which has not ruled out working with the president.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal posted Tuesday on the newspaper’s Web site, Musharraf confirmed he intends to remain in office and work with the new government.
“We have to move forward in a way that we bring about a stable democratic government to Pakistan,” he said.
He agreed the election outcome was a reflection of Pakistanis’ dissatisfaction with his government, citing economic problems and his attempt to rein in judges as well as sympathy for the opposition after the assassination of their charismatic leader, Bhutto.
“All these things had a negative impact,” Musharraf said.
Zardari told reporters Tuesday he wanted to form a “government of national unity.” He made clear that he would not include politicians who had been allied with Musharraf, but carefully avoided an unequivocal statement about whether the president should remain in power.
US Senator John Kerry, who met Tuesday with Musharraf along with other US lawmakers, said the president expressed his willingness to work with the new government.
But the former general is so unpopular among the Pakistani public that opposition parties are likely to find little reason to work with him, particularly since he no longer controls the powerful army.
At best, Musharraf faces the prospect of remaining in power with sharply diminished powers even if the opposition fails to muster the two-thirds support in parliament to impeach him.
White House press secretary Dana Perino, traveling with President George W. Bush in Africa, said it is too soon to know whether the election had weakened Musharraf’s power.
“I think what President Musharraf has shown is an ability to provide for the country a chance to be confident in their government,” she said.
US Senator Joseph Biden, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and another US lawmaker who observed the election, said the results mean the United States can shift its Pakistan policy from on based on Musharraf to “on based on an entire people.”
Pakistani analysts said the results pointed to broad support for centrist, democratic parties at the expense of patronage politicians and Islamist movements.
The pro-Taliban Jamiat-e-Ulema, or JUI, party won only three seats in the national parliament. And a coalition of Islamist religious parties was poised to lose control of the regional administration in the North West Frontier Province, which it won in the 2002 elections.
Unofficial returns showed the secular Awami National Party had won 31 of the 96 contested seats in the provincial assembly, with the religious United Action Forum taking only nine seats.
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First Published: Wed, Feb 20 2008. 03 47 PM IST
More Topics: Pakistan | Election | President | Musharraf | PPP |