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Pakistan’s president refuses to step down

President Pervez Musharraf will not step down as head of state and intends to serve out his five-year-term, his spokesman says, despite a sweeping election victory by his opponents — some of whom want to drive him from power.
Image: Supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN)
Supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, celebrate their electoral success in Lahore on Tuesday.Arifali / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Pervez Musharraf will not step down as head of state and intends to serve out his five-year-term, 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 had won enough seats to form a new government, though they will likely fall short of the two-thirds needed to impeach the president.

Musharraf’s spokesman Rashid Qureshi said Tuesday the president intends to work with the new government and will serve out his term, which 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.”

But the vote was widely seen as repudiation of Musharraf, whose approval ratings have plummeted following his decisions last year to suspend the constitution purge the judiciary and round up political opponents.

So far, the two main opposition groups have garnered 154 of the 268 contested seats, according to the Election Commission.

Formidable challenges
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 U.S. war on terror, another unpopular move in the Muslim nation of 160 million.

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.”

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.

Government of national unity?
Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party of assassinated ex-Premier Benazir Bhutto, told reporters Tuesday that he would meet soon with Sharif and other opposition leaders “to form a government of national unity.” Zardari also made clear that his coalition would not include politicians who had been allied with Musharraf.

“We will seek support from democratic forces to form the government, but we are not interested in any of those people who are part and parcel of the previous government,” said Zardari, though he carefully avoided an unequivocal statement about whether Musharraf should remain in power.

A spokesman for Sharif’s party said Wednesday that it would support Zardari to form a “stable government,” but 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. That demand could leave Sharif at odds with the PPP, which has said the decision should be left to Parliament.

Sen. John Kerry, who met Tuesday with Musharraf along with other U.S. lawmakers, said Musharraf has 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 impeach him.

White House press secretary Dana Perino, traveling with President Bush in Africa, said it is too soon to tell if 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.

Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and observed the election, said the results meant the United States could shift its Pakistan policy from one based on Musharraf to “one 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 party has won only three seats in the national parliament. A coalition of Islamist parties was also poised to lose control of the regional administration in the North West Frontier Province, which it won in the 2002 elections.