WaPo : Pakistan's President Musharraf Faces Impeachment

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Pakistan's President Musharraf Faces Impeachment

By Candace Rondeaux | Washington Post Foreign Service | August 7, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Aug. 7---Pakistan's ruling coalition parties agreed Thursday to impeach President Pervez Musharraf, setting up a major showdown between the former military chief and the newly elected civilian government.

Leaders of the ruling Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N faction called for Musharraf for a no-confidence vote in parliament and said they could begin official impeachment proceedings against the president in the next few days.

Pakistan People's Party co-chair Asif Ali Zardari said Musharraf's nearly nine-year rule had thrown the country into turmoil and that the time had come to break the six-month-long political deadlock that has paralyzed Pakistan since the civilian-dominated coalition was swept to power in parliamentary elections on Feb. 18.

"His policies have weakened the federation and eroded the trust of the nation in national institutions," Zardari said at a press conference held here with Pakistan Muslim League-N faction leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. "The coalition believes it has become imperative to move for impeachment under Article 47 against Gen. Musharraf."

In world circles, Musharraf has been viewed alternately as a political pariah and bold statesman in a region that has suffered instability for more than three decades. His profile rose considerably after he became one of the first Muslim leaders to ally himself with the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He has been a key ally in the U.S. led war in Afghanistan, providing operational bases and logistical support for the U.S. military and arresting al-Qaeda figures with Pakistan's borders. Yet, doubts have lingered about the sincerity of his loyalty to the U.S. mission. Recently, Pakistan has come under heavy pressure from the Bush administration to rein in Islamist insurgents in its tribal areas along the Afghan border, while Pakistan's powerful intelligence agencies have been accused of assisting Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

The coalition has called for members of Pakistan's four provincial assemblies to move for a vote of confidence on Musharraf's tenure in office. Impeachment proceedings would be a separate. A combined two-thirds majority vote in both the National Assembly and Senate would be required to oust him from the presidency.

Should the coalition succeed in doing that, the move would be a first in the nuclear-armed nation's 61-year history to remove a head of state through this rare parliamentary measure.

In a sign of the seriousness of the crisis, Musharraf canceled at the last minute a scheduled trip to Beijing for the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympics. The coalition government announced that Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gillani would fly to Beijing instead.

Musharraf, who stepped down as army chief in December, remained silent on Thursday, as the country braced for the possibility that the president could move to dissolve parliament under a controversial amendment adopted during his rule. The president met with a top constitutional expert presumably to discuss his options, according to local news reports, and was expected to meet with Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, chief of the Pakistani military, and top officers of the Pakistani army.

Sharif and Zardari announced their decision to oust Musharraf about three months after Sharif pulled his party out of government cabinet positions in protest over Zardari's refusal to immediately reinstate some 60 judges fired by the president last year.

A long-simmering dispute over how to restore the judges threatened to permanently divide the two ruling parties and brought the country to a virtual standstill amidst one of the worst economic crises in its history.

Sharif, whose party drew strong support at the polls in part because of its calls for restoration of the judiciary, held that a simple executive order was sufficient to reinstate the judges. But Zardari's party insisted on adopting a complex package of constitutional amendments to restore the judiciary, a move that would have required unprecedented political consensus between several parties across an increasingly unstable Pakistan.

The impasse was apparently broken in several days of marathon meetings between coalition party members.

Speaking together Thursday for the first time in months at Zardari's family home in Islamabad, Zardari and Sharif said they will push for the restoration of Pakistan's fractured judiciary and bring deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry back to the bench after Musharraf is impeached.

Musharraf, 64, came to power in October 1999 after mounting a military coup against Sharif.

His political fortunes shifted dramatically last year after he suspended Chaudhry from the bench. The move prompted a political conflagration that led to dozens of clashes. Musharraf lost further political capital after he ordered a security forces to raid the historic Red Mosque in Islamabad, where militants had holed up. More than 100 people died in ensuing fighting.

New challenges to Musharraf's rule mounted in November after the president declared a state of emergency and placed Chaudhry and some 60 other judges under house arrest. Public support for Musharraf plummeted following the Dec. 27 assassination of former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Yet, Musharraf still appears to draw significant support from within his Pakistan Muslim League-Q party. Tariq Azim Khan, a leading spokesman for the party, said he expects energetic negotiations to begin in the wake of the impeachment announcement. But he said he is confident that the party will largely stand by the president in what could be the defining moment of his political career.

"Rightly or wrongly, people may not agree with his politics but all those who voted for him in parliament should stand behind him," Azim said.

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.