Nearly nine years after he seized power in a bloodless coup, Pakistan's beleaguered President Pervez Musharraf has decided to call it a day.
Dressed in a dark suit and looking sullen, the former army chief announced his resignation in a hastily arranged live televised address. "I hope the nation and the people will forgive my mistakes," he said, his voice thick with emotion. "Every decision I made was only with noble intentions."
Musharraf maintained his composure, but occasional flashes of indignation underscored the fact that the decision to step down was hardly his alone. It came days after the four-month-old coalition government decided to seek Musharraf's impeachment and the country's four provincial legislatures overwhelmingly passed what were in effect no-confidence votes against the President. Musharraf, a former commando who has braved two wars, was plainly reluctant to surrender, but the prospect of public humiliation at the hands of his political opponents proved decisive. "The coalition has decided that I am part of the problem and not the solution," Musharraf conceded in his speech. "I could fight back and answer back, but that may have led to deepening uncertainty."
Many analysts believe that a discreet intervention by the new army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, may have helped Musharraf make up his mind. Over recent months the army has been keen to rebuild its much-damaged domestic image and distance itself from politics. Any active effort on its part to save Musharraf would have only aroused popular disquiet at a time when the army is struggling to tame militancy in the country's wild North-West Frontier Province.
In pockets of the Pakistani capital yesterday, political activists took to the streets, exultantly raising chants against Musharraf. The scenes were reproduced in other major cities, chiefly Lahore, where political power lies with Musharraf's most devoted political enemy, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif the man Musharraf overthrew in 1999, who now leads the second-largest party in the coalition government. Keen observers of Pakistan's turbulent years could not help but notice the irony. When Sharif's government fell, delighted Pakistanis poured onto the streets to cheer the army's intervention. Now the tables have turned. The civilian coalition government has faced down the former general, and recent opinion polls establish Sharif as the country's most popular politician.
The shift was hardly sudden. For years, Musharraf's one-man rule remained largely unchallenged, but his fortunes declined last year when Pakistan's main cities erupted in protest at his decision to sack the country's independent-minded chief justice. "Go, Musharraf, go" became a constant refrain as his popularity sank and his once isolated political opponents grew emboldened. He imposed a state of emergency last November, suspending the constitution and sacking the judiciary. Public hostility toward his regime deepened as lawyers were beaten in the streets, political activists detained and the press muzzled.
With his authority draining, Musharraf was forced to make a series of ruinous concessions. Washington urged him to broaden his political base and enter a power-sharing agreement with the late Benazir Bhutto. Musharraf allowed Bhutto to come back to Pakistan, and Sharif returned weeks later. In the face of domestic and international pressure, Musharraf had to shed his uniform the source of much of his authority. Matters grew worse when Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi in late December. And a relatively free and fair general election in February stripped Musharraf of a loyal government as his allies suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of voters.
The enfeebled President who stepped down today was a different man from the barrel-chested general who strutted across the world stage in the years after 9/11. Initially shunned by the international community, General Musharraf was embraced by the Bush Administration as a key ally in the war on terror. Religious conservatives and even secular liberals routinely criticized him for fighting "America's war." In 2003, he cheated death twice when militants attempted to blow up his car.
In his resignation speech today, Musharraf took a tone of unquestioning self-confidence familiar to readers of his highly self-regarding autobiography, In the Line of Fire. "Where was Pakistan in 1999?" he intoned. "No one knew us, no one spoke to us, and no one listened to us. Now, we have put Pakistan on the map and people take notice." Looking intently toward the camera, he declared, "This country faced unprecedented challenges. And I turned every challenge into an opportunity ... I'm leaving satisfied with my actions."
Now the focus is turning toward Pakistan's delicately stitched-together coalition government, for which Musharraf has proved a source of common enmity and cohesion. The two parties led by Sharif and Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, could start wrangling over Musharraf's freshly evacuated seat. Zardari has deflected suggestions that he's interested, but suspicions linger that he may wish to become the next head of state if only as a ceremonial figure. The coalition has vowed to claw back the wide-ranging powers with which Musharraf endowed the presidency.
Still, Musharraf's exit is likely to provide the coalition a significant if brief popularity bump. The Karachi Stock Exchange rose 4%, and the rupee rose marginally against the dollar. But with inflation at 25%, alarming levels of capital flight, soaring costs of food and fuel, and rising unemployment, the economic outlook remains bleak. And as Pakistan-based Taliban become more confident, Islamist militancy is a growing concern.
The coalition partners accused Musharraf of "mismanaging the economy" and allowing terrorism to flourish. But if over the coming months the weak civilian partners fail to arrest the decline of the economy and the rise of militancy, they may face a galling nostalgia for the one-man rule of the Musharraf years.