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Wed 20 Feb 2008 01:07 PM

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Musharraf rejects calls to resign

Pakistan's president says he won't step down after losing Monday's landslide parliamentary elections.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf rejected calls to resign as opposition parties on Wednesday mulled a coalition government that could force the key US ally from power.

Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf removed from power in a coup in 1999, and the widower of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto both said they wanted to work with other opposition groups after Monday's vote.

Sharif urged Musharraf to quit, while Asif Ali Zardari said he would not work with anyone associated with the party that backed Musharraf in the last parliament, which observers said suffered a stinging defeat at the polls.

A statement from Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) on Wednesday "recalled General Musharraf's recent statements that if the parties supporting him were defeated in the elections, then he would resign from his office."

Despite the intensifying pressure on Musharraf, he told an American newspaper that he has no plans to quit.

Asked by the Wall Street Journal whether he would resign or retire, Musharraf said: "No, not yet. We have to move forward in a way that we bring about a stable democratic government to Pakistan."

Musharraf was also quoted in the interview published on the newspaper's website as saying he would like to function "with any party and any coalition because that is in the interest of Pakistan."

Sharif and Zardari were set to meet in Islamabad on Thursday. Both were also due to hold meetings of their party central executive committees on Wednesday, with contacts between the two sides expected.

A firebrand lawyer detained by Musharraf since November, Aitzaz Ahsan, called for the president to resign on Tuesday.

Opinion polls before the election showed that up to three-quarters of Pakistanis questioned said it was time for him to go.

"He should quit," said Tabassum Vohra, 50, a man selling medical supplies on a busy commercial street in the eastern city of Lahore. "If he does not quit, then everything will be useless - the elections, the change. We want change."

Election commission secretary Kanwar Dilshad said official results of the vote were set to be announced on Wednesday after the final handful of constituencies were tallied.

With votes counted in 258 out of 272 constituencies, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Sharif's party had a combined total of 153 seats, the commission said. The former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q and its allies together had 58.

Results also showed a near total defeat for hardline Islamic parties that under the previous administration ruled Pakistan's North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan.

A European Union team which monitored the vote was set to deliver its report on Wednesday. A team of US senators that observed the election called it credible and legitimate.

The White House said the elections were "largely fair."

"I think that what we can say is that they seem to have been largely fair and that people were able to express themselves, and that they can have confidence in their vote," spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

A hostile parliament threatens the political survival of Musharraf, who could theoretically face impeachment if the opposition gets a two-thirds majority.

Analysts said Musharraf's most likely strategy would be to woo Bhutto's party and split it from Sharif's by preying on the one-time rift between the ex-prime ministers.

The death of Bhutto in a December 27 gun and suicide attack -- along with other suicide bombings -- overshadowed the campaign and forced the election's delay until Monday.

Musharraf, who shed his dual role as chief of the army late last year, had already been weakened by a bruising months-long stand-off with the country's deposed chief justice and deepening unpopularity.

To bolster his position he has relied on backing from the US - and financial aid of 10 billion dollars, mainly military, since he joined the Washington-led "war on terror" in 2001.

A fresh challenge could come if Sharif pursues his pledge to restore chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was sacked by Musharraf under a state of emergency in November and remains under house arrest.

Musharraf ousted Chaudhry when it looked like Pakistan's Supreme Court was set to deprive him of a second term as president, but that move could come back to haunt him if the judge gets his job back.

RAJENDRA K. ANEJA 11 years ago

The election results in Pakistan, irrespective of who wins, will not materially change its fortunes. Pakistan's key problems are: a) Talibanism, fundamentalism, and terrorism b) Musharraf's loss of credibility c) Culture of violence, bombing d) Lack of young leaders e) Over-dependence on West for economic/military aid f) Inadequate focus on economic development g) Concentration of political/economic power Unless these issues are addressed, Pakistan will continue to be unstable.