Severely weakened by a crushing election defeat and facing the prospect of possible impeachment, Pervez Musharraf has reportedly resigned himself to serving a "ceremonial" role as the country's president.
Senator Joe Biden, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and part of an American delegation that met with Mr Musharraf yesterday morning, said the president appeared to have accepted the reality of the election result, which saw his parliamentary allies soundly defeated.
"I don't think he is going to resign... my impression is that he was prepared to retire to being president, which he pointed out to us is ceremonial," said Mr Biden. "To me it appears more about respect than power. Much will depend on how he is treated by the opposition parties and whether they opt for a transition rather than... revolution."
In the aftermath of the election, which saw the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) secure sufficient seats to form a majority government together, officials from the two parties have embarked on a frantic series of backroom dealings to stake out positions.
Asif Ali Zardari, head of the PPP, is due to meet in Islamabad with Nawaz Sharif, leader of the PML-N, tomorrow for face-to-face talks to discuss a coalition.
Mr Zardari, the widowed husband of Benazir Bhutto, indicated his party was unlikely to look to form a coalition with the involvement of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), aligned to Mr Musharraf, saying: "As the largest political force of the country, we demand that we be allowed to make the government. For now, the decision of the party is that we are not interested in any of those people who are part and parcel of the last government."
Meanwhile in the Punjab capital, Lahore, Mr Sharif repeated his demand that Mr Musharraf stand down. "He would say, 'When people would want, I will go'. Today the people have said what they want," said Mr Sharif. "I invite all to sit together and free Pakistan of dictatorship."
Mr Sharif has always insisted that the country's ousted judiciary – including the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry – be reinstated. The PPP has been less insistent on this issue and Mr Zardari suggested it would be a matter for a new parliament to decide.
If, however, the two parties can put aside their differences to create a coalition, Mr Musharraf could face the prospect of a government seeking his impeachment. The long-term ally of the West has said he would resign if such a situation developed.
A great deal now depends on Mr Musharraf, as well as the opposition parties. Having stood down as head of the armed forces, the president had already lost one of his most important levers of power before the election. With the defeat of the "Q" Mr Musharraf has now lost his political allies and at best faces the prospect of serving with considerably diminished powers.
The US has invested huge political capital and more than $10bn (£5bn) in supporting Mr Musharraf since the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, when the president agreed to participate in the so-called war on terror. While Washington will be concerned that a new government might not support its anti-terror policies, the US has already been working hard to build a relationship with Pakistan's new head of the armed forces, General Ashfaq Kiyani.
Mr Biden also met with Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif. He said he believed Mr Zardari was aware that a smooth transition benefited the PPP. He said he believed Mr Musharraf's attitude would depend on how he was treated "personally" by a new government. A US State Department spokesman in Washington said: "Certainly we would want the election results to be respected by all parties. We certainly hope that as the process moves forward of forming a government, that everyone continues to remain calm and act in a peaceful manner."
In addition to the defeat of the "Q", Pakistan's religious parties also fared badly in Monday's vote and were posed to lose control of the North West Frontier province which they secured in parliamentary elections in 2002. Their defeat may represent less a defeat for Islamist policies in themselves, as much as opposition to the poor governance of the province over the past six years.
Final results from Monday's polls are expected to be announced tonight but an unofficial tally by local media based on 229 of the 268 National Assembly seats being fought last night gave the PPP 33 per cent, with 27 per cent to the PML-N and the "Q" in third place with 14 per cent.
Results so far
PPP (Bhutto's party) 87
PML-N (Nawaz Sharif) 66
PML-Q (pro-Musharraf) 38
MQM (Sindh-based) 19
ANP (Secular Pashtuns) 10
Source: Geo TV
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