Pakistan's ruling party concedes defeat

February 19, 2008 8:04:35 PM PST
Pakistan's ruling party conceded defeat to the opposition Tuesday in parliamentary elections that could threaten the rule of President Pervez Musharraf, a key American ally in the war on terror. A sweeping opposition win in elections has diminished the U.S.-backed leader's political standing as never before and many predict his days in power are numbered.

Musharraf has already given up his command of the army, and his rock-bottom popularity at home has diminished his effectiveness to his Western allies in the fight against Islamic extremism.

"I don't see him surviving. It is just a question of time," said Shafqat Mahmood, a political analyst who is a prominent commentator in Pakistani newspapers and television.

Monday's elections, in which the ruling party mustered just 15 percent of the vote, exposed how little support Musharraf has among Pakistan's 160 million people. Many are alarmed at rising Islamic militancy, weary of prolonged military rule and angry at high food prices.

The parties of Bhutto and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted in a 1999 coup, came close to winning the two-thirds majority needed to impeach the president. According to nearly complete official returns, Bhutto's party has 33.6 percent of National Assembly seats, and Sharif's 25.9 percent.

"The fact that parties opposed to Musharraf won the election was a clear denunciation of his actions and politics," Mahmood said. Key aides of the president, including the chairman of the ruling party, a former top government spokesman and the foreign minister, even failed to win parliamentary seats.

On Tuesday, Sharif reiterated his demand for Musharraf to step down - recalling the president's statement last year that he would resign if he ever lost the support of the people.

"He has closed his eyes. 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 told reporters in Lahore.

The weight of public animosity derives partly from Musharraf's tight alliance with the White House in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida - a battle few now see in Pakistan's interests.

Yet perhaps more critically, it reflected anger over the military's dominance for the past eight years, and Musharraf's maneuvering to remain in power, which culminated in the state of emergency he declared in November to stop the Supreme Court from overturning his re-election as president by the previous parliament.

"Instead of being the unifying figure he is pretending to be, Musharraf has led Pakistan into a dark alley," said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "The only way he can survive now is through manipulation, and the more he does that, the more public sentiment will go against him."

Musharraf will try to hang on, telling the The Wall Street Journal in an interview posted Tuesday on the newspaper's Web site that 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 Benazir Bhutto's assassination.

"All these things had a negative impact," Musharraf said.

The elections were widely perceived in Pakistan and abroad as a triumph for democracy and the nation's "moderate majority" - a phrase used Tuesday by visiting Sen. Joe Biden. But Musharraf faces a formidable task to persuade the victors he is a man they can work with.

While the leader of Bhutto's party, her widowed husband Asif Ali Zardari, has yet to rule out working with Musharraf, most analysts say the retired general's deep unpopularity would make him a political liability.

"'Go Musharraf, go!' will pick up very quickly," said Rais, referring to the protest slogan raised by lawyers who have rallied for the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. "It will be his (Zardari's) choice whether to be with the forces of change or with an individual widely despised in Pakistan."

Athar Minallah, a prominent Supreme Court advocate lobbying for Chaudhry's release, said that unless the next parliament restores judges axed by Musharraf by March 7, lawyers from across Pakistan would "lay siege to Islamabad" - not an enticing prospect for a new civilian government.

If the pre-emergency judiciary is reinstated, it would likely revisit the case that led to its ouster: whether Musharraf's re-election was constitutional. That could again endanger his position and lead to another political crisis.

Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political analyst, said if a coalition government of Bhutto and Sharif's parties is able to win the support of independent lawmakers and achieve a two-thirds parliament majority, it is likely to seek Musharraf's impeachment.

Still, the United States is urging the elected government's leaders to work with Musharraf, a former special forces commando who has escaped at least two al-Qaida assassination attempts since he allied Pakistan with the U.S.-led war on terror groups and who remains a trusted ally.

"Ultimately President Musharraf is still the president of Pakistan and certainly we would hope that whoever becomes prime minister and whoever winds up in charge of the new government would be able to work with him and with all other factions," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Tuesday.

Bhutto's party could agree to that to avoid upsetting the U.S., the chief aid donor to impoverished Pakistan, as it comes to grips with government after nearly 12 years out of power, said Zaffar Abbas, an editor at the Dawn newspaper.

Sharif, whose party fared better than expected in the election and won control of the key province of Punjab, might be willing to compromise on Musharraf's survival provided other parties are seen to take responsibility for letting him off the hook.

But Musharraf would have to "learn to live compromises and a very reduced role. If he doesn't, it's a recipe for disaster for the democratic system and for President Musharraf himself," Abbas said.

Matthew Pennington is the Associated Press bureau chief in Islamabad and has covered Pakistan since 2003. AP writer Stephen Graham in Lahore contributed to this report.