Jubilation across country; Gilani says 17th Amendment will be scrapped

ISLAMABAD, Aug 18: President Pervez Musharraf, who often vowed never to run away from a fight, surrendered to his political foes on Monday by tendering his resignation from office to escape the humiliation of impeachment, making way for Pakistan’s transition to a full parliamentary democracy after a lengthy military dictatorship.

The end of nearly nine years of his rule, which the 65-year-old former army chief announced in a televised address, marked a historic success for the country’s political forces that sought his ouster, although a thoroughly isolated president claimed he chose to bow out “for the sake of the country and the nation” rather than pack up parliament that had prepared to impeach him within this month.

The acceptance of defeat by Pakistan’s fourth military ruler without a promised fight in a bitter power struggle with a fledgling coalition government triggered nationwide celebrations as coalition partners began to ponder about the choice of the next president who they have pledged will only be a figurehead rather than with sweeping powers Mr Musharraf had assumed by decree such as dissolving the National Assembly and sacking a prime minister. Partners of the four-and-a-half months old coalition government, led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), had finalised a charge-sheet accusing the president of violating the constitution and misconduct and planned to notify National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza possibly by Tuesday to begin proceedings within three days for impeachment by a joint session of the two houses of parliament after a minimum of seven and a maximum of 14 days.

But the president pre-empted the move by announcing to tender his resignation although his spokesmen had repeatedly said he would not resign and would prefer to contest the charges in a parliament where the coalition appeared to have mustered more than two-thirds majority of the total 442-strong total membership of the 342-seat National Assembly and the 100-seat Senate required to pass an impeachment resolution.

It was no longer the fist-waving ex-commando Musharraf who often said he was a fighter who would never run away and “lead from the front”.

Amid growing pressure from his political opponents and isolation at home and abroad, a humbled president admitted it was time for “no individual bravado” but for “serious thought”.

And he said that although he believed none of the still undisclosed charges against him could be proved, different thoughts had been crossing his mind and recourse to them could possibly lead to a confrontation between national institutions like parliament and judiciary or even drag the armed forces.

“Therefore, after considering this whole situation and consultation with my legal advisers and political supporters and with their advice, it is for the sake of the country and the nation that I have decided today to resign from office,” he said, adding that he would send his resignation to the National Assembly speaker.

The resignation came amid media reports, none of which was confirmed by the opposing camps, that some foreign friends of Pakistan, possibly including the Saudi royal family, were trying to broker a ‘safe exit’ or immunity for the president for his alleged constitutional and other violations, including the charge of treason for subverting the constitution that is punishable with death.

But the president, in an apparent reference to such a possibility, sounded confident about his future and said: “I don’t need anything from anybody, I have no concern. I leave my future in the hands of the people. Let them be the judges and let them do justice.”

Even hours after Senate Chairman Mohammedmian Soomro took over as acting president until a successor is chosen within 30 days by an electoral college of both houses of parliament and the four provincial assemblies, there was no indication whether Mr Musharraf would stay in the country or seek exile abroad as had been done by his two main political opponents during his rule – former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

With the obstacle of Mr Musharraf’s extraordinary powers out of the way, the immediate political tasks before the coalition partners, including the Pakistan Muslim League-N of Mr Sharif and two smaller allies, will be the promised restoration of about 60 superior court judges the former president sacked under his controversial emergency proclamation of Nov 3, 2007, and clipping the powers of president to arbitrarily dissolve the National Assembly, sack a prime minister and appoint armed forces chiefs and provincial governors.

No wonder, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told the National Assembly later on Monday that parliament had gained real sovereignty and that the coalition would do away with the controversial 17th Amendment to the constitution that had legitimised president Musharraf’s decress that gave him the extraordinary powers that would now go to parliament and the prime minister as committed in the Charter of Democracy, signed by Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif in London two years ago.

The coalition partners also face the daunting tasks of tackling other pressing problems they largely blame on Musharraf’s policies such as an unprecedented inflation, food and energy shortages, a wave of militant violence in the tribal and settled areas of the NWFP and a low-level insurgency in Balochistan.

Mr Musharraf’s resignation, whose ‘second five-year term as president’ started on Oct 15, 2007, after a controversial election, shattered his ambition to become the country’s longest serving military-cum-civilian ruler. A normal expiration of his present five-year term in 2012, would have given him 13 years in power compared to over 10 years of Pakistan’s first military ruler ‘Field Marshal’ Mohammad Ayub Khan (1958-1969) and 11 years of Gen Mohammad Ziaul Haq (1977-1988) and two-and-a-half years of Gen Yahya Khan (1969-1971).

And Mr Musharraf became the second military ruler to announce his resignation in an address to the nation in the face of public pressure, though he, having become a civilian after giving up as chief of the army staff eight months ago, let the constitution take its course with the Senate chairman becoming the acting president while Ayub Khan handed over to Gen Yahya Khan who declared the country’s second martial law instead of allowing the National Assembly speaker to hold elections.

Gen Yahya had hurriedly, without making any speech, handed over power to PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the winner of the 1970 elections in what was then called West Pakistan after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle.

General Zia’s rule ended with his death in a still unexplained 1988 C-130 plane crash whose anniversary was marked only a day before the end of the Musharraf era, which put the total of military rule in Pakistan at 33 years in 61 years of the country’s life.

President Musharraf went to great lengths in his hour-long Urdu-language speech only four days after the Independence Day, to defend his rule since Oct 12, 1999 when he seized power after toppling the elected government of Nawaz Sharif government. Enumerating high points of his rule, he said his tenure was an ‘era of an economic progress, during which he had prevented the country from being branded a terrorist or failed state, introduced an ‘essence of democracy’ in the shape of local governments, and successfully overcome serious challenges like the drought of 2000, a 10-month military confrontation with India in 2001, withstanding the fallout of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the October 2005 earthquake.

But he regretted that the present government, which had emerged victorious after defeating his loyalists in the Feb 18 elections, had failed to respond to his appeals for a political reconciliation and rejected his offers of support with his experience of the past and regarded him as a “problem and not a solution”.

And he wondered if their impeachment move was motivated by their fears about “my constitutional power about a lot of things” or by their “desire to hide their present and future mistakes”.

He said he recognised parliament’s right to impeach him and his own right to contest it, but he asserted he had faith in God that “no charge-sheet can stand against me. No charge, not one charge can be proved against me because I have confidence in me that I did nothing for my own self. Whatever I did was in following in his idea of (taking) ‘Pakistan first’ (over everything else).”

He said that in taking every complicated and critical decision he “took on board all stake-holders”, including the military, politicians, civilian bureaucracy as well as the civil society when needed and the ulema where they were concerned.

Mr Musarraf’s impeachment, also demanded by all the four provincial assemblies, had appeared a certainty after most independents and many of his loyalists were about to switch sides.

But he said that although he had no fear of the charges he was sure could not be proved, he avoided facing them because he believed his success or defeat both would have meant “a defeat of the nation” because of potential harm to the dignity of the country and the office of president and his desire to avoid prolonging a state of uncertainty, “horse-trading” in parliament, putting “my (political) associates to a difficult test” and the prospect of unending tension between the government and the presidency.