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After Pakistan election, Musharraf has few good options

Pakistan's president lost his final base of support in Monday's parliamentary election.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 21, 2008

Beat?: The longtime US ally has said he won't resign.

Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters

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Lahore, Pakistan

For the first time since he seized control of Pakistan in a 1999 coup, Pervez Musharraf's presidency appears to be out of his hands.

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The comprehensive defeat of the political forces that were loyal to him in Monday's election – coupled with his retirement as Army chief in November – means he is a man with no meaningful bases of support and only nominal powers as president, experts say.

The man so adept at surviving repeated crises now has few viable options, they say.

If he chooses to fight and use the powers of the presidency, opposition parties will create chaos in the country. If he reinvents himself as a conciliatory elder statesman, the parties might still reject him, not wanting to save an unpopular leader.

It means that the United States, which for so long has depended on Musharraf as "one-stop shopping," is now hastily trying to understand the levers of power in Pakistan's new and more diffuse political scenario.

"Musharraf and the US had reached a stable working relationship – his departure would raise questions in Washington about how to manage the partnership and where to go for assistance, both in a tactical sense and a longer-term one," says Daniel Markey, a Pakistan expert for the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, in an e-mail.

At the moment, Mr. Musharraf's departure does not seem imminent. Nawaz Sharif has demanded that he step down, and Asif Zardari has said he will bring the issue before parliament. As the leaders of the two biggest winners in Monday's vote, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), respectively, their positions are significant.

But Musharraf has refused, and Messrs. Zardari and Sharif are just beginning to try to form a coalition government together – a process that could take days. With only five seats remaining undeclared, the PPP had 88 seats and the PML-N 65 in the 272-seat National Assembly. The Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), which supports Musharraf, had 37.

Musharraf strikes a cooperative tone

In the few public statements Musharraf has made since the election, he has struck a cooperative tone, suggesting he will work with whoever comes to power. He will have little choice, particularly if the PPP and PML-N succeed in forming a coalition.

"He has no cards to play," says Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Science. If Musharraf uses his presidential power to defy the new legislature or dissolve it, the political opposition "could shut down Pakistan with one phone call, and he could not control that."