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Pakistan: Walking the Line

Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

There are still a lot of question marks in the aftermath of the Pakistani parliamentary elections. It's still not clear, for instance, which parties will make up the governing coalition or who the Prime Minister will be. But the faultlines are beginning to come into focus, and one thing is already certain: the hot seat that President Pervez Musharraf has been occupying these past few months just got a bit hotter.

Pakistan People's Party (PPP) Co-chairman Asif Zardari and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) chief Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday separately called for President Pervez Musharraf to quit after his allies were defeated in the general elections.

"Musharraf had said he would quit when the people tell him to. The people have now given their verdict," Nawaz told a news conference in Lahore.

Nawaz expressed his intention to re-appoint the Supreme Court judges that Musharraf fired in declaring last year's state of emergency, and re-submit the validity of his presidential candidacy for their ruling. So whether Musharraf holds onto to the presidency will depend on whether the Parliament succeeds in turning back the emergency decrees. No matter how that dispute is resolved, though, it guarantees bitter conflict between Musharraf and the government for the near future.

Clearly the election results seriously complicate American Pakistani policy, as demonstrated by State Dept spokesman Sean McCormack's statement about Washington's posture:

"Fundamentally, regardless of who's sitting in the prime minister's chair or the foreign minister's chair or the defence minister's chair, primarily, that's our interest, is remaining committed to the Pakistani people," Mr McCormack said.

"So we're going to work with President Musharraf. We're going to work with this new government on those issues, and toward those goals that are in our national interest."

How the US manages to walk that line remains to be seen. I've long suspected that Musharraf's days were numbered even were he to win the elections; Western press coverage of Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani made it seem like he was being groomed to succeed him. I've gotten burned before predicting Musharraf's imminent demise. But the logic of his remaining in power seems to be dwindling.