Musharraf exit poses challenge in Pakistan
Those who pushed him out now must face militants
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pervez Musharraf resigned yesterday as the president of Pakistan, avoiding a power struggle with rivals vowing to impeach him that would have deepened the country's political crisis.
His exit, announced in an emotional televised address, leaves the politicians who pushed out the stalwart US ally to face the Islamic militants and economic problems gnawing at this nuclear-armed nation.
"There is a huge challenge ahead," said Shafqat Mahmood, a former government minister and 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 bring 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 former general, 65, 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, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered "deep gratitude" for Musharraf's decision to join the US-led fight against extremists following the Sept. 11 attacks, saying he "served as a good ally of the United States."
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.
Still, Musharraf's demise throws up a string of critical questions, including whether the ruling coalition will hold together without its common foe and whether the main parties will maintain Musharraf's close alliance with the United States.
Musharraf's departure is unlikely to have a significant impact on how Pakistan's nuclear weapons are controlled, however. Specialists say a 10-member committee, and not just the president, makes decisions on how to use them.
In an hourlong address devoted largely to defending his record, Musharraf listed the many problems now facing Pakistan, including its sinking economy and a chronic power shortage, and suggested his opponents were targeting him to mask their own failings.
"I am going with the satisfaction that whatever I have done was for the people and for the country . . . I hope the nation and the people will forgive my mistakes," he said.
In cities across Pakistan, crowds gathered to celebrate, some firing automatic weapons into the sky.
"It is very pleasing to know that Musharraf is no more," said Mohammed Saeed, a shopkeeper in a crowd of people dancing 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. 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 the country was bound for political stability.
However, analysts say the coalition must quickly clear two more political hurdles in order to survive: elect a new president and resolve the country's judicial crisis.
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.