ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Mamnoon Hussain was sworn in as Pakistan’s new president Monday, replacing Asif Ali Zardari, who becomes the first democratically elected president in the nation’s history to complete a full term.
The post of president is largely ceremonial in Pakistan and the occupant is chosen by national and provincial lawmakers. Hussain, 73, a businessman from Karachi and a former state governor, has close ties to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League–N party.
Zardari, 58, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, stepped down Sunday after an honor guard ceremony officiated by the armed forces.
Hussain’s swearing-in came as leaders of more than a dozen political parties gathered at a conference led by Sharif and agreed to negotiate with militant groups in the lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, groups that have sought to topple the government.
In telephone calls to news media, Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said his group welcomed the government’s offer of talks and would convene within a few days its central council, which would form a team to negotiate and formalize its demands.
Sharif was elected in May on a pledge to bolster security and improve Pakistan’s beleaguered economy. Once in office, he outlined his preference for peace talks over military strikes. Major political parties' support for that approach Monday should give Sharif the political cover he needs to move ahead.
The parties expressed "full confidence" in the prime minister's efforts and called on the federal government to "initiate the dialogue with all stakeholders forthwith" in a six-point communique passed at the conference, held at the prime minister’s residence.
The conference attendees also underscored their desire to defend national sovereignty and to oppose U.S. drone strikes, which they said were undercutting Islamabad’s “efforts of eliminating extremism and terrorism.” They added that Pakistan would raise the drone issue with the United Nations if necessary.
Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani told the attendees that the government and armed forces were on the same page in their approach to tackling terrorism, local media reported. The conference participants also expressed concern that the international community didn’t fully acknowledge the sacrifices made by the Pakistani people in countering terrorism.
A key problem with the plan to talk with the militants, analysts said, is the number of players on both sides of the table.
The Pakistani Taliban is a disparate collection of extremist groups that won’t necessarily agree among themselves or abide by any terms that are hammered out. Similarly, the major political parties don’t have a good record of agreeing to and sticking with a unified counter-terrorism approach.
Ultimately, a deal will depend on the goodwill of the Taliban, some said.
"If they come forward with their nonsense demands and they refuse to recognize the constitution of Pakistan and refuse to accept democracy, then there will be no success in the talks,” said Talat Masood, a security analyst and retired army lieutenant general. “Then there will be a fight.”
But the fact that several parties have backed Sharif’s approach should strengthen his hand.
“The government will have this political support in talks, and even if the talks fail, and the government decides to take military action, this political support will stay, even then,” Masood said.
Special correspondent Khan reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer Magnier from New Delhi.