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Associated Press – August 18, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pervez Musharraf resigned as the president of Pakistan on Monday, ducking out of a power struggle with rivals vowing to impeach him that would have deepened the country’s political crisis.
His exit, communicated in a defiant televised address, gives the political parties, which sidelined the steadfast U.S. ally after February elections and have now driven him from office, a chance to consolidate Pakistan’s shaky democracy.
Perhaps more importantly, it will test whether they can do a better job than the former army strongman of tackling the Islamic militancy and the economic problems gnawing at this nuclear-armed nation.
“There is a huge challenge ahead,” said Shafqat Mahmood, a former government minister and now a prominent political analyst. “Now this whole Musharraf excuse is behind us. Now people are going to be focusing on their performance.”
Musharraf’s departure after nearly nine divisive years in power was widely expected after months of rising pressure for him to leave, culminating in the threat to introduce impeachment charges to Parliament this week.
A diminished figure since he resigned as army chief in November and found himself cut out of policy making by the civilian government, the 65-year-old left the presidency amid a palpable lack of overt support from either of his main props – the army and Washington.
Underlining how the West has already moved on, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday offered “deep gratitude” for Musharraf’s decision to join the U.S.-led fight against extremists.
But she was careful to signal strong support for the civilian government that pushed him aside.
“We believe that respect for the democratic and constitutional processes in that country is fundamental to Pakistan’s future and its fight against terrorism,” Rice said.
However, his demise throws up a string of critical questions, including whether the ruling coalition can hang together without its common foe and whether the main parties will maintain Musharraf’s close alliance with the U.S.
In cities across Pakistan, small crowds gathered to celebrate, some of them firing automatic weapons into the sky.
“It is very pleasing to know that Musharraf is no more,” said Mohammed Saeed, a shopkeeper among a crowd of people jigging to drum beats and hugging each other at an intersection in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
“He even tried to deceive the nation in his last address. He was boasting about economic progress when life for people like us has become a hell,” he said, because of problems that include runaway inflation.
But many revelers were already thinking to the future.
“The government had been blaming Musharraf for inflation, power cuts and the weak economy, and since now he has resigned, we hope that the government will take steps to make our life better,” said Asma Bibi, a housewife in the central city of Multan.
She also cursed Musharraf for “selling our innocent brothers and sisters to America for dollars” after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S.
The government said Musharraf’s retreat was a victory for democracy over dictatorship – Pakistan has spent about half its 61-year history under military rule.
“His resignation clears the way for our government to get on with…providing to the people of Pakistan basic social services, economic opportunities, political security and law and order,” Information Minister Sherry Rehman said.
Pakistan’s stock market and currency both rose strongly on hopes that the country was bound for political stability.
However, analysts say the coalition must quickly clear two more high political hurdles in order to survive.
According to the constitution, parliament must elect a new president within 30 days.
There has been speculation that both Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, the leaders of the two main parties, are interested in the role. However, neither has openly said so and both have vowed to strip the post of much of its power.
Senate speaker Mohammedmian Soomro, the chairman of the upper house of Parliament, will act as interim president, but is viewed as a Musharraf loyalist with no chance of keeping the job.
The coalition also faces huge pressure from public opinion and lawyers who have protested against Musharraf for more than a year to restore the Supreme Court judges ousted when Musharraf imposed emergency rule last year.
Those moves undercut Musharraf’s already sinking popularity and helped propel his allies to defeat in the February elections.
The coalition that replaced them was founded on a pledge to restore the judges that has remained unfulfilled – a reluctance many attribute to Zardari’s concern that the judges are too close to Sharif, who loudly championed their cause.
Talat Masood, a former army general turned political analyst, forecast that the coalition would find compromises for both the presidency and the judiciary, partly because neither wants to tackle the country’s problems alone.
“It’s a huge challenge and they cannot face it individually. It’s very important for them to work together and I think they know that,” he said.
However, Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times newspaper, forecast that wrangling in the coalition – the two main parties fought bitterly for power in the 1990s, when both were stained by allegations of corruption – will hamper policy making.
“America wants some immediate decisions (on fighting terrorism), and I don’t think they will be able to concentrate on that,” Sethi said.
Another mystery unresolved Monday was Musharraf’s own fate.
Musharraf seized power from Sharif in a coup in 1999, when he was the army chief. Sharif, who was jailed then sent into exile and only returned to Pakistan last year, has vowed to put Musharraf on trial for treason – a crime punishable by death.
“The crimes of Musharraf against the nation, against the judiciary, against democracy and against rule of law in the country cannot be forgiven by any party or individual,” Sharif’s spokesman, Ahsan Iqbal, said Monday.
Supporters and foes had suggested that Musharraf was holding out for guarantees that he would not face criminal prosecution or be forced into exile.
“Musharraf would probably go away for a while” because of threats to his security – he has survived several assassination attempts – and to help defuse calls for his criminal prosecution, Masood said.
“Whatever one might say, it may be difficult for the politicians to give him the indemnity,” even if it has been promised, he said.
Musharraf offered no details of his future plans in a somber, hourlong address – his last from the hulking, white marble presidential palace in Pakistan’s capital.
Most of the monologue was a feisty defense of his achievements – keeping Pakistan out of the U.S. firing line after the 9/11 attacks, easing tension with archrival India, and overseeing an economic boom that is only now starting to falter.
But as he turned to his present predicament, his brow grew more furrowed and the pauses between his sentences longer.
Before announcing his resignation to spare the nation from a power struggle that could have dragged the army in to arbitrate, he complained that his opponents had snubbed his offers of reconciliation.
“There were certain elements who were politicking with the economy and terrorism,” he said.
Finally, the former commando, veteran of two wars with India, insisted he had sacrificed himself for Pakistan alone. “My life is for this country, this nation, as it was in the past, as it is now and it will be in future.”
Blinking hard, he briefly raised his clenched fists.
“In the end, God bless Pakistan, God bless all of you, long live Pakistan always.”

Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad, Munir Ahmad and Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Khalid Tanveer in Multan contributed to this report.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed

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