Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has blustered and wriggled his way out of some tricky situations in the past, but the former army commando may have finally met his match. A day after Musharraf's party crashed to a humiliating defeat in parliamentary elections widely seen as a referendum on the President's rule, calls for him to step down are becoming louder and more numerous by the hour. Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyer and opposition leader who has spent the past three months under house arrest following Musharraf's crackdown on the judiciary, told the French News Agency that the President is "the most hated man in the country and he must resign."
Musharraf is not about to comply willingly with such demands, but he could see his hand forced once the new parliament assembles in the next few weeks. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif together won more than half the 272 open seats in Pakistan's parliament. Leaders of both parties said Tuesday that they would try to form a coalition; if they can win support from two-thirds of the parliament, they could try to impeach Musharraf. "It is the public mandate, not me, to say that Musharraf should resign," Benazir's husband and PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari told the BBC. "Now we will take the [resignation] demand into the parliament and see which political forces join hands with us."
Sharif, who was ousted in the 1999 coup that brought Musharraf to power, is even more explicit in his calls for his arch-rival to resign, arguing that Musharraf himself recently promised to step down if the people decided they wanted him gone. "Musharraf has said he would quit when people tell him," Sharif told reporters at a press conference today. "People have now given their verdict."
But Musharraf says he's not going anywhere and will work with the new government "for the good of the country." "They [the opposition] are way off in their demands," Musharraf's spokesman said in rejecting calls for the President to resign. "This is not the election for President. President Musharraf is already elected for five years." Officials from Musharraf's party are already reportedly trying to woo Zardari away from a tie-up with Sharif. Such efforts are unsurprising, since the key to Musharraf's fate undoubtedly lies in the ripening relationship between the two opposition leaders. Tough they are publicly making nice for now, Zardari and Sharif might struggle to get along once the glow of the election victory fades. Bhutto and Sharif were longtime political foes, and it is no sure thing that the PPP and PML-N leaderships will be able to overcome that legacy and the egos involved and form a stable and workable union.
Whatever the outcome, many Pakistanis are still marveling that the election went off mostly freely and mostly fairly and has ended in a result that reflects voters' wishes. "All the King's men are gone, the King's party has been reduced to ashes and the King's fate is in the hands of the next parliament, which will be strong enough to strip him of his extraordinary powers or impeach him if it so chooses," wrote the editor of Lahore's influential Daily Times Najam Sethi, reflecting the surprise many Pakistanis feel. "So let us give the devil his due, even though he went about it in a particularly devilish way."