Pakistan’s political crisis came to a head yesterday after the country’s ruling coalition moved to impeach President Musharraf, dealing a potentially critical blow to a key Western ally in the War on Terror.
The decision, which would take Pakistani politics into uncharted territory, heightens pressure on the beleaguered President to step down from office. Mr Musharraf has said that he would rather resign than face impeachment but he does retain the power to dismiss Parliament to prevent such proceedings.
Announcing the decision after three days of crisis talks, Asif Ali Zardari, head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which leads the coalition Government, accused Mr Musharraf of conspiring with opposition parties to undermine the country’s transition to democracy. “Musharraf has brought Pakistan to a critical impasse,” said Mr Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister who was assassinated in December.
Speaking at a press conference with Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League faction, he said that Parliament would be summoned this month to begin impeachment against the former general, who has ruled the country for more than eight years. Mr Sharif, who was ousted as Prime Minister in 1999 after Mr Musharraf came to power in a bloodless coup and is the leader of the second-largest coalition party, said that the process of impeachment would start in the next few days.
The leaders said that a charge sheet outlining Mr Musharraf’s performance as President was to be drawn up and circulated in Parliament in the coming days, to be signed by at least half of all MPs. His re-election as President last October while he remained head of the army — in apparent violation of the Constitution — is likely to form the basis of his impeachment. The President cancelled his visit to China to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics after the impeachment decision and spent the day consulting legal advisers and his political allies. Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Prime Minister, will represent Pakistan instead.
Mr Musharraf, 65, is expected to fight the impeachment. “I will defeat those who try to push me to the wall,” he said. “If they use their right to oust me, I have the right to defend myself.”
Mr Zardari said that MPs would also push for Mr Musharraf to face a vote of confidence. The judges removed by Mr Musharraf during his brief emergency rule in November last year would be restored if impeachment were successful. “It is good news for democracy,” said Mr Zardari.
The thorny issues of Mr Musharraf’s removal and the restoration of deposed judges have dominated Pakistani politics since the formation of the coalition Government four months ago.
Despite the loss of parliamentary support Mr Musharraf has resisted pressure to resign, insisting that he was willing to work with the new Government. But Pakistani political circles are rife with speculation that he is manoeuvring towards this scenario. Yesterday his critics cautioned against such a move. “It will be his last act if Musharraf tries to dismiss the Parliament,” Mr Sharif said.
The army, which Mr Musharraf had headed for more than nine years, is not expected to come to his rescue. Top commanders met in Rawalpindi to review the security situation in the country but did not release a public statement on their conclusions. Some senior defence analysts said that while the army might not intervene directly, it would not allow its former commander to be humiliated.
The ruling coalition claimed that it had the two-thirds majority in Parliament required to remove the President. Mr Zardari said: “We hope that 90 per cent of lawmakers will support us.” But his supporters insisted that the impeachment move was bound to fail. “They certainly don’t have the numbers,” Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a former federal minister, said.
Mr Musharraf, a key US ally, stepped down as army chief in December after he was elected President. His allies were defeated in elections in February that resulted in a civilian coalition Government led by the PPP, the party of the late Ms Bhutto.
March 2007 Musharraf suspends the Supreme Court justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, provoking protest rallies across the country
July Supreme Court reinstates Chief Justice Chaudhry
October Musharraf wins presidential election. Benazir Bhutto returns from exile
November Supreme Court meets to decide if Mr Musharraf was eligible to stand for re-election while still army chief. Mr Musharraf imposes emergency rule. Ms Bhutto placed under house arrest. Election declared for January 8. Nawaz Sharif returns from exile
December State of emergency lifted. Constitution restored. Ms Bhutto assassinated
January 2008 Election postponed to February 18
February Election victory for Ms Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party, and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League
March Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari form a coalition
August Ruling coalition says it will launch impeachment proceedings