- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

ISLAMABAD (London Sunday Telegraph) — Pervez Musharraf is considering stepping down as president of Pakistan rather than waiting to be forced out by his victorious opponents, his aides say.

One close confidant said the president believes he has run out of options after three of the main parties who triumphed in last week’s elections announced they would form a coalition government, and he also pledged to reinstate the country’s chief justice and 60 other judges fired by Mr. Musharraf in November.

“He has already started discussing the exit strategy for himself,” a close friend said. “I think it is now just a matter of days and not months because he would like to make a graceful exit on a high.”

According to senior aides, Mr. Musharraf wants to avoid a power struggle with the newly elected parliament, in which his opponents will be close to the two-thirds majority needed to impeach him and remove him from office.

“He may have made many mistakes, but he genuinely tried to build the country, and he doesn’t want to destroy it just for the sake of his personal office,” said an official close to the president.

Mr. Musharraf, who stepped down as head of the army late last year, had called for a harmonious coalition after the defeat of his Pakistan Muslim League-Q party — which won just 40 of 272 National Assembly seats in last Sunday’s elections — but his political rivals have demanded he go.

The main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto won 87 seats, followed by the Pakistan Muslim League-N of Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, with 67 seats. On Thursday, the two parties announced they will form a coalition government, supported by the smaller Awami National Party.

As the largest party, the PPP gets to nominate the prime minister. The front-runner for the post is 68-year-old Makhdoom Amin Fahim — the widely respected vice president of the party, from Mrs. Bhutto’s Sindh province.

The three parties lack the two-thirds majority needed to impeach the president and will need the support of other smaller parties and independent members of parliament.

Officials said Mr. Musharraf had considered resigning immediately after the election results were known, but had been persuaded by party loyalists that his sudden departure could precipitate a crisis.

In an article published last week in The Washington Post, he insisted he would serve out his five-year presidential term.

Behind the scenes, his staff attempted to broker an agreement with Mrs. Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who became leader of the PPP following her assassination Dec. 27.

Yet despite pressure from the United States, which has relied on Mr. Musharraf’s support for its war on terror, Mr. Zardari refused to strike a deal.

Mr. Zardari also claimed he was threatened by Mr. Musharraf’s allies that the government would revive long-standing corruption charges against him.

“I have seen these jails, and this is not something new to me,” Mr. Zardari said. “I fought all these fake cases instituted against me with courage and never disappointed anyone by asking for a pardon.

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