After Pakistan election, Musharraf has few good options

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

Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters
Beat?: The longtime US ally has said he won't resign.
Anjum Naveed/AP
Next steps: Leaders of the Pakistan People's Party, including Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Zardari (c.), met in Islamabad on Wednesday on the tails of their success in parliamentary elections.

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.

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."

For now, the power shift is making American foreign policy officials scramble. In the long run, however, it could work to America's benefit, experts say.

"Putting together a bilateral relationship that is based on broader institutional ties is healthy, as is having a civilian government in Islamabad," writes Mr. Markey. "Only popular parties can mobilize support for policies that hit at the roots of extremism and militancy."

The remaining question is what will happen to Musharraf. Among those who have come into personal contact with him, there is a sense that he will understand the depth of his current predicament.

"He is an intelligent man. He will know he is not in a position to dictate things," says Mahmood Shah, who helped coordinate Musharraf's policies in the tribal belt as former secretary of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. "Even if he tries to cling to power, it will be very difficult," Mr. Shah continues.

The coming days or weeks will be a test of whether Musharraf's legendary survival instincts have their limits, say others. "He will first try to see if he has any future working with these political parties," says Ikram Sehgal, editor of Defence Journal. "If it is not tenable, he will lay out a plan to say good-bye."

"He knows very well that the Army will not support him" if he challenges the parliament, Mr. Sehgal adds.

Should Musharraf prove confrontational, however, Zardari has said he would not rule out impeachment. This is particularly bad news for Musharraf, since Zardari's PPP has generally been more tolerant of Musharraf than Sharif's PML-N, which has categorically refused to work with Musharraf, partly because Musharraf overthrew Sharif in his 1999 coup.

The process of impeachment is relatively simple, requiring only a two-thirds vote in the general assembly and the Senate. The Senate is still filled with Musharraf's allies, since it is not up for reelection until next year. But senators might be tempted to abandon Musharraf if his situation looks untenable. The Army, however, would be loath to see its former leader humiliated in such a way and could step in to convince Musharraf to go, if it came to that point, says Sehgal.

Credit for allowing a fair vote

Among Pakistanis, there has been some grudging respect for Musharraf after the election – offering him credit for allowing a vote that undermined his own authority.

"I think he should stay," says a man eating ice cream along a Lahore side street, declining to give his name. "If he had fair elections, he should be given a chance."

But this man is in the vast minority. For Sajjid Hussain, standing nearby, the results from Monday's elections were welcome news. But there remains unfinished business, he says: "I will be happy when Musharraf steps down."

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