Musharraf rejects opposition calls to quit

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf rejected demands to quit on Wednesday and called for a ”harmonious coalition” as victorious opposition parties mulled a grouping that could force the key United States ally from power.

Musharraf was making his first official comments since Monday’s crucial parliamentary vote, which left him fighting for his political life after his allies suffered a heavy defeat.

”The president emphasised the need for harmonious coalition in the interest of peaceful governance, development and progress of Pakistan,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.

But at a press conference later on Wednesday, the husband of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto alleged that Pakistani authorities were withholding election results and attempting to alter them.

”Last night the situation was that they were trying to change the results,” Asif Ali Zardari told a news conference, two days after the polls in which his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won the largest number of seats.

Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf removed from office in a 1999 coup, and Zardari both said they wanted to work with other opposition groups after the polls.

Sharif urged Musharraf to quit, while Zardari said he would not work with anyone associated with the party that backed Musharraf in the last Parliament.

Zardari said he would meet Sharif on Thursday evening ”to find solutions to the problems of Pakistan”.

A statement from Bhutto’s PPP on Wednesday ”recalled General Musharraf’s recent statements that if the parties supporting him were defeated in the elections, then he would resign from his office”.

The election commission has not yet released the official results, saying that about half a dozen seats have yet to be confirmed.

”They are trying to rig the results by holding the final results of several seats,” PPP leader Taj Haider said.

Despite the intensifying pressure on Musharraf, he told an US newspaper that he has no plans to resign.

”No, not yet. We have to move forward in a way that we bring about a stable democratic government to Pakistan,” the Wall Street Journal‘s online edition quoted him as saying.

Opinion polls before the election showed that up to three-quarters of Pakistanis questioned said it was time for Musharraf to go.

‘Significant victory’

US President George Bush embraced the elections as ”a significant victory” for democracy and said he hoped the new government would ”be friends of the United States”.

Pakistan’s neighbours India, Bangladesh and China expressed hopes for post-election stability in the country. An Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson added that his country stands ready to resume talks with the new government as part of a peace process with its nuclear-armed South Asian rival.

With votes counted in 258 out of 272 constituencies, the PPP and Sharif’s party had a combined total of 153 seats, the election commission said. The former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) and its allies together had 58.

A close presidential ally and PML-Q stalwart, Sheikh Rashid, cited three factors for his party’s defeat: a deadly army raid last year at a radical mosque in Islamabad, pro-US policies and inflation.

European Union election monitors said balloting took place in a generally positive atmosphere even though ”a level playing field was not provided for” in the campaign.

Results showed a near-total defeat for hard-line Islamic parties that under the previous administration ruled Pakistan’s North West Frontier province where militants are based along the border with Afghanistan.

Three security personnel were wounded on Wednesday night in a grenade attack in the north-west garrison town of Kohat, police said.

A hostile Parliament threatens the political survival of Musharraf, who could theoretically face impeachment if the opposition gets a two-thirds majority.

Musharraf, who shed his dual role as army chief late last year, had already been weakened by a bruising months-long stand-off with the country’s deposed chief justice and deepening unpopularity.

To bolster his position he has relied on backing from the US, which has seen him as a key ally in its ”war on terror”. — Sapa-AFP

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Danny Kemp
Danny Kemp
The Hague bureau chief, @AFP. Ex-Brussels, London, Paris, Bangkok, Islamabad and Hong Kong

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