IHT : Pakistani Parliament opens with a power shift

Monday, March 17, 2008

Pakistani Parliament opens with a power shift

Reuters, The Associated Press | March 17, 2008

ISLAMABAD: The new National Assembly was sworn in Monday in Pakistan, setting the scene for a showdown with President Pervez Musharraf a month after his opponents swept a general election.

Musharraf's allies were routed in the Feb. 18 vote, and he is faced with the prospect of inviting the victors, led by the Pakistan People's Party, to form a coalition that could drive him from power.

Pakistan's Western allies and neighboring countries fear that a confrontation between the president and a new government could herald more upheavals in a nuclear-armed state already reeling from a wave of militant bombings.

Security was tight outside Parliament, with police officers and paramilitary soldiers guarding the complex and restricting traffic on the avenue outside.

In a sign of looming conflict with the isolated president, a Pakistan People's Party member said that members were taking their oaths under an old, democratic Constitution, not the amended version that came into force after Musharraf imposed emergency rule in November.

A member of the Pakistan People's Party's main coalition partner, the party led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, denounced Musharraf's 1999 coup, in which Sharif was ousted.

The February election saw the Pakistan People's Party emerging with the most seats in the 342-member National Assembly but not enough to rule alone. Sharif's party came in second, dealing a crushing defeat to the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q.

Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's widower and political successor, signed an agreement this month to form a coalition with a small regional party from the country's northwest.

Neither Zardari nor Sharif ran in the election, but both were in Parliament to watch the proceedings together from the visitors' gallery. Musharraf stayed away from the session, which marked the end of his eight-year domination of Pakistani politics.

"It's the first step for democracy," Zardari said. "We have sent this message to the world that democracy should be helped, and democracy is the last day of dictatorship."

The two main coalition party leaders have vowed to reinstate judges the president dismissed when he imposed emergency rule beginning in November.

If reinstated, the judges are expected to reopen legal challenges to Musharraf's re-election as president by legislators in October, while he was still army chief. Musharraf's opponents say that his re-election was unconstitutional.

The Pakistan People's Party has said its top priority will be to seek a United Nations investigation of the Dec. 27 gun-and-suicide-bomb attack that killed Bhutto, a former prime minister and the highest-profile victim of the recent wave of violence.

To reassert the primacy of Parliament, the coalition aims to amend the Constitution to strip Musharraf of his power to dissolve the assemblies and to dismiss the prime minister.

Musharraf's allies were routed in the elections partly because many Pakistanis blame the president's friendship with the United States for fueling violence at home.

An attack in Islamabad on Saturday was the first in Pakistan's quiet capital in several months and the first targeting foreigners here in more than a year. A Turkish woman was killed, and the 11 wounded included 5 U.S. citizens, among them FBI workers.

On Sunday, at least nine militants were killed by missiles fired by U.S. aircraft in the South Waziristan tribal region, a haven for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters on the Afghan border.

Shortly after being sworn in, the assembly said prayers for Benazir Bhutto, who led the Pakistan People's Party until her assassination. The party has yet to decide on its candidate for the post of prime minister.