The End of Musharraf?

Pakistani voters dealt President Pervez Musharraf and his Pakistan Muslim League-Q a humiliating defeat in Monday's general elections. The opposition Pakistan People's Party of the late former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif trounced Musharraf's forces. A sizable victory will allow these two moderate, mainstream parties to combine with several other smaller allies and form a government with a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. To make matters worse for Musharraf and his allies, the PPP has won control of the provincial assembly in the key southern province of Sindh, and Sharif's PML-N of the provincial assembly in Punjab, the country's richest, largest and most influential region. "It's amazing what has happened to Pakistan," says retired Pakistani Army Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. "The people have strongly spoken in favor of democracy, moderate forces, the rule of law—and against Musharraf."

The opposition victory is so resounding that influential Pakistanis began calling for the president's resignation. "The people of Pakistan have spoken with great vigor and clarity," the Supreme Court Bar Association's president, Aitzaz Ahsan, told NEWSWEEK by phone from his Lahore residence, where he is still under house arrest for opposing Musharraf's efforts to keep power. "Pervez Musharraf has played his innings and should show some grace and bow out." But Musharraf, who has ruled Pakistan with an authoritarian hand since he overthrew the democratically elected Sharif in a bloodless 1999 military coup and who has been hailed by President George Bush as a crucial ally, is unlikely to call it quits anytime soon. Even so, he is badly weakened politically. Although Musharraf as president was not a candidate in the election, his most powerful and vocal supporters were routed. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the Q party's president, was defeated. So were Musharraf's defense and foreign ministers and his strongest whips in parliament. Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, his former railways minister, lost for the first time in seven elections going back to 1985. He was so shaken that he scrambled for a midnight plane to Spain, as angry crowds gathered outside his residence in Rawalpindi.

In an effort to put the best face on his defeat, Musharraf is expected to call for national reconciliation and to pledge to work closely with the new prime minister, whom the national assembly will choose in the coming days, after the official results are announced by this Wednesday. Unofficial tallies so far have the PPP winning the largest number of seats, 86, followed closely by the PML-N with 66 and Musharraf's party a distant third with 38; the national assembly has 272 directly elected seats. The religious parties that were instrumental in keeping Musharraf in power were big losers as well, winning only three seats, as opposed to 56 in the 2002 elections. Already Q league president Hussain is sounding conciliatory. "We accept the results with an open heart," he said. He and Musharraf may harbor dreams that somehow they can convince PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, who is Bhutto's widower, to do a deal with them, saving the day for the president and his men.

But that scenario has little basis in reality. The election's victors and the voters see the polls' results as a complete repudiation of Musharraf and his policies. There seems little, if any, room for compromise with the president and his allies despite Zardari's and Sharif's differences. Zardari and Sharif head parties that have competed against and hated each other for years. Each party used the military to overthrow the other in the 1990s. Zardari, like most PPP stalwarts, is a center-left populist, while Sharif leans to the center-right and is closer to conservative Pakistani Muslims and some Islamists. Zardari, a former playboy and polo player, is from Karachi, in the south; Sharif is from an industrial family in Punjab, to the north. Zardari, 51, who was known as "Mr. Ten Percent" for the kickbacks he allegedly received as a minister in his wife's government, spent eight years in jail on corruption charges. Sharif, 58, who also had a reputation for corruption, was imprisoned by Musharraf on kidnapping and corruption charges before being sent into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Neither man ran in Monday's election. Zardari had decided to stay abroad and raise the children while Benazir ran the party and campaigned for parliament. A Musharraf-packed court rejected Sharif's candidacy, and that of his popular brother Shahbaz, when they returned from exile last November. That could be another reason for friction between the two leaders as they compete to control politics from behind the scenes. But the two are now united in victory by their hatred for their jailer, Musharraf, and the mandate that the voters have given them and their parties. They know that if they don't stick together and successfully form a stable government with a two-thirds majority, Pakistanis will never forgive them. "We've seen these guys before, and they failed us," says senior Pakistani journalist Mariana Babar. "Let's hope they don't lose what may be our last chance." What's more, Musharraf, although badly wounded politically, retains the constitutional power to dismiss summarily any government the two parties may cobble together. The danger to Zardari's and Sharif's nascent victory is clear. Neither could survive as long as Musharraf remained a powerful president. As a result they have a common goal that will keep them together: to drastically curb Musharraf's presidential powers, or even remove him from office.

That's why most Pakistanis expect, and indeed want, the new national assembly to make its first order of business to cut the once powerful Musharraf down to size. Already he has lost two legs of the tripod that has kept him in power. He is now bereft of any political support in the national assembly. Having resigned as chief of army staff last November under heavy domestic and international pressure, he can no longer rely on the army to back him. The army's new chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, has clearly stated that he is removing the military from Pakistani politics, which it has dominated for at least half of the country's 60 years of independence. "The army will be very happy with this result," says Gen. Masood of the election. "They no longer have any stake in Musharraf. He is a liability to them." Nevertheless, Musharraf remains powerful as a result of sweeping constitutional powers that he gave himself through a series of controversial amendments that he rammed through the previous rubber-stamp national assembly.

The new parliamentary body therefore is expected to take direct aim at his legal authority. The first target may be the constitutional amendment that gives the president the power to dismiss the prime minister, the elected government, and to dissolve the assembly. That law can be overturned by a two-thirds national assembly vote. The national assembly can also strike a crippling blow against Musharraf by not validating the state of emergency order he issued as army chief last November. That draconian act removed the most independent judges from the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, knocking out constitutional challenges to Musharraf's re-election as president for a new five-year term. If the assembly votes against "indemnifying" Musharraf for the imposition of the emergency, which he has admitted was an illegal act (he got away with it because he was head of the army), the cashiered judges could be restored quickly to their former positions. Most Pakistanis favor the restoration of the judges—which was Sharif's and his party's sole political platform. And a restored judiciary headed by Chaudhry would most likely revisit the constitutionality of Musharraf's disputed presidential victory, thus threatening his presidency. The new assembly will also try to alter the 17th amendment, which gives the army a constitutional role in government as a key player in the National Security Council.

To be sure, Musharraf will fight any attempt to strip him of his powers. An authoritarian figure whom Bush and other world leaders have fawned over, Musharraf won't happily shrink away to become a figurehead president. But if he fights back too roughly, the national assembly has the option to impeach him and remove him from office. Indeed, Musharraf has never seemed more vulnerable. But it would also be a mistake to count him out. If Zardari and Sharif cannot maintain a united front, Musharraf could yet win by his old strategy of divide and rule.