By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 8, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 7 -- In his first public interview in months, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday moved to dispel rumors that he plans to step down amid renewed calls for his resignation.
Musharraf, 64, has faced increasing pressure to resign since his ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q faction was routed in national parliamentary elections in February. But in a rare televised interview with top Pakistani journalists, Musharraf vowed to remain in the presidency.
"I am not tendering resignation now," he said in the interview, which was broadcast nationally.
Musharraf broke his lengthy public silence in the wake of recent rumors that he is preparing his last maneuver in a complex political chess game that has threatened to further destabilize Pakistan. Dressed in a dark blue suit and blue tie with white polka dots, the president appeared relaxed and confident as he denied that he plans to go into exile in Turkey, despite his growing unpopularity.
"I don't have a house outside of Pakistan, and I don't want one," Musharraf said.
Musharraf came to power in October 1999 after ousting prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a military coup. He went on to weather a number of challenges during his more than eight years of military rule.
His political fortunes shifted substantially, however, after he suspended the Supreme Court's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, in March 2007. The move prompted thousands of lawyers to take to the streets in cities across Pakistan and ignited a political conflagration that sparked violent clashes.
Musharraf's image was further damaged in July, when more than 100 people were killed in a government-led raid on the historic Red Mosque in Islamabad. The botched operation in the heart of the country's normally sleepy capital stunned millions of Pakistanis and incurred the wrath of an increasingly powerful militant Islamist movement, whose leaders vowed revenge.
The crisis deepened in November when Musharraf declared a state of emergency and placed Chaudhry and about 60 other judges under house arrest. But the tipping point came in December, when former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed in a suicide bomb attack during a campaign rally in Rawalpindi.
Bhutto's death gave rise to a wave of sympathy that helped usher her Pakistan People's Party to power in the Feb. 18 elections for the 342-seat National Assembly. Sharif, who had lived in exile in Saudi Arabia for years and remained a bitter opponent of Musharraf's, also benefited, with his Pakistan Muslim League-N party garnering the second-highest number of votes.
Within weeks, Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower and co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, formed a coalition and vowed to restore the country's judiciary.
But so far, the two leaders have been unable to agree on how to repair the justice system and whether to impeach Musharraf. Their disagreement has led to political paralysis as the country slides deeper into an economic downturn and faces an energy crisis that has left millions without regular electricity for months.
"There are two gentlemen who are sitting far outside Parliament who don't see eye to eye and who hold the destiny of Pakistan and 160 million people in their hands," said Mushahid Hussain, a senator and leading member of Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League-Q party. "They're not showing leadership. There is this obsession with individuals rather than issues."
Until recently, Sharif has played bad cop to Zardari's good cop, with Sharif calling for Musharraf's immediate and unconditional ouster and with Zardari being more reserved in his criticism. But last week, Zardari called Musharraf a "relic of the past." And as newspaper headlines have trumpeted rumors of Musharraf's possible departure, other members of the Pakistan People's Party have been equally vocal in their calls for his impeachment.
"Our thinking is that the people of Pakistan no longer want Musharraf, and it would be best for him to read the political writing on the wall rather than forcing the political parties to move to impeach him," said Farahatullah Babar, a spokesman for the Pakistan People's Party. "He is a source of political instability."
On Tuesday, a Parliament session erupted into chaos when members of Sharif's party called for Musharraf's arrest and trial on treason charges amid shouts of "Go, Musharraf, go," and a member of the Pakistan People's Party apparently made a veiled threat to take violent action against the president.
But Musharraf is not without his supporters. Marvi Memon, a newly elected member of Parliament, staunchly defended him during the riotous session. In an interview, she dismissed the suggestion that Musharraf was preparing to resign, saying, "The president is a fighter."
Still, pressure on Musharraf to step down appears to be mounting in other quarters. The military he once led has been reshuffled since the appointment of his replacement, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani. Rumors of Musharraf's imminent resignation intensified last week when Kiyani named Brig. Faheem Rao as commander of the army's Triple-One Brigade, the unit charged with maintaining presidential security, replacing a longtime Musharraf loyalist, Brig. Aasim Salim Bajwa.
Calls for the ruling coalition parties led by Sharif and Zardari to impeach Musharraf are expected to spike Tuesday when thousands of lawyers kick off a march from the southern city of Karachi to Islamabad to demand restoration of the judiciary. In recent days, several former Musharraf supporters have vowed to join the march, including a group of former servicemen believed to number in the thousands.
Retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a political analyst, said the protest would probably ignite a firestorm of political unrest.
"If the lawyers movement starts on the 10th, then there will be stark choices facing the leadership in Parliament," Masood said.
Musharraf, for his part, said Saturday that he is prepared to continue working with the coalition government. "I don't want to be part of Pakistan's downfall," he said.