Don't sack Musharraf, US and UK warn election victors

The US and Britain are pressing Pervez Musharraf’s victorious opponents to drop their demands that he resign as president and that the country’s independent judiciary be restored before forming a government.

In a strategy some Western diplomats admit could badly backfire, the Bush administration has made clear it wishes to continue to support Mr Musharraf even after Monday’s election in which the Pakistani public delivered a resounding rejection of his policies. “[The US] does not want some people pushed out because it would lead to instability. In this case that means Musharraf,” said one Western diplomat.

Officials say the policy is driven by concern about possible instability in the aftermath of the election in which the president’s parliamentary allies were soundly beaten. In such circumstances US and its Western allies are urging the election’s winners - the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N)- to quickly move forward and form a coalition that includes all “moderate” elements.

But along with Mr Musharraf’s future, the reinstatement of sacked Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry and other Supreme Court justices - sacked by the president when they refused to ratify his imposition of a State of Emergency last November - has rapidly emerged as the most contentious issues in the aftermath of Monday’s vote, as the PPP and PML-N negotiate to form a coalition government. Mr Sharif, whose party secured the second most number of seats, built his campaign around the reinstatement of Mr Chaudhry and has repeatedly insisted Mr Musharraf should stand down.

Last night an aide to Mr Sharif, who is due to meet today (THURS) with PPP leader, Asif Ali Zardari, confirmed there had been pressure to drop its demand for Mr Chaudhry’s return. “The suggestion has been there from Western countries for some time. In fact it was raised by [a senior British official] when he met Mr Sharif in London. [But] we are not willing to compromise on our stance. We feel it would be against the interest of the Pakistani people.”

This week senior US officials have already met with Mr Sharif and the other leading players in Pakistan’s unfolding political drama, urging an inclusive transition towards democracy. Yesterday morning, a US diplomat based in Lahore spent two hours with Aitzaz Ahsan, leader of the lawyers movement, laying out the US position.

Mr Ahsan, who has been under house arrest for three months, declined to detail the contents of his conversation with the diplomat, but he said: “There is no way other than to reinstate the judges…We are not going to let this pass. We will not let it be accepted as a norm.”

Since the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration has pursued a controversial policy in which it has given billions of dollars and considerable political support to Mr Musharraf, who is considered a vital ally in the so-called war on terror. The policy has been pursued despite criticism of Mr Musharraf’s human rights record and amid claims of hypocrisy over the US’s backing for a military dictator who seized power in a military coup while purportedly promoting democracy.

Officials admit that in the aftermath of such a decisive election its decision to stick by Mr Musharraf and its urging of his opponents to work with him - even with him serving in a reduced role - could be seen as interference and carried with it high risks.

Yet they say the threat of instability and the over-present threat of violence in Pakistan requires the various groups to form a coalition of moderate parties rather than becoming “fixated” on Mr Musharraf’s immediate future or the restoration of the judiciary. Another Western diplomat said: “The important thing is that a stable government can be formed.”

The West’s approach has already drawn criticism. Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, said: “[How is it that] the US believes…Musharraf can be the guarantor of any sort of stability when he is the source of instability?”

Mr Musharraf has insisted that he has no intention of resigning. His spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, said yesterday that he intended to work with the new government and that he would serve out his term that expires in 2012. “The people on Monday didn't vote to elect a new president,” said the spokesman. “In fact, they participated in the elections to elect the new parliament.”

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