August 8, 2008 5:32 pm

Musharraf defies impeachment threat

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Pervez Musharraf has often defied his foes in the face of political challenges during his nine-year rule as Pakistan’s president. But his ­survival in the face of a threatened impeachment by ruling politicians will be far from easy.

On Thursday, leaders of the Pakistan People’s party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – the two main partners in Pakistan’s fractious coalition government – promised to push forward with impeachment proceedings against the former army chief.

On Friday, four PML-N ministers who walked out of the cabinet this year returned to the government in a show of unity. Some ministers have described the impeachment issue as a “make or break initiative” for the new government: if Mr Musharraf survives in spite of the odds against him, he will be empowered politically and “dwarf the government, maybe even make us toothless”, said one minister.

Legislatures from Pakistan’s four provinces (North West Frontier Province, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan) are due to meet on Monday to discuss the impeachment initiative and are expected later to vote in its favour, according to government ministers.

But Mr Musharraf on Friday appeared to be unperturbed, according to aides. “The president will not quit without a fight,” said a senior adviser to Mr Musharraf, following a long night of consultations between the president and some of his closest political and legal confidantes.

The vote in the provincial legislatures will have no legal or constitutionally binding effect. But ruling politicians believe it would intensify the pressure on Mr Musharraf to step down. “It is a question of moral authority. Once the provinces vote, the president will have to rethink his position,” said the government minister. Mr Musharraf’s position would become untenable if Pakistan’s parliament also voted for impeachment.

Ruling politicians are using issues such as last years’ sacking of judges, last October’s presidential election while Mr Musharraf was still the army chief, and his track record on managing the economy as the basis of a charge sheet against the president.

Independent analysts warned that he might be banking on support from the army as his ultimate saviour, given his position as chief of staff until last November.

While the army has ruled over Pakistan for more than half its life as an independent state, General Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief of staff who took over from Mr Musharraf, has frequently made it known to close friends that he has no interest in staging another coup or even applying background pressure to save the president.

“It is in President Musharraf’s character to fight back. But more importantly [for Mr Musharraf], General Kiyani right now wants to keep a distance from politics,” said Anatol Lieven, a professor at the department of war studies at King’s College London.

But others warned that there is no reason to count on the military remaining neutral indefinitely. “The army’s mood in future will depend entirely on how this transition takes place. If it is relatively peaceful, then they may not [intervene]. But if this brings turmoil, instability and collapse of everything, then the army may need to rethink,” said Masood Sharif Khattak, former head of the Intelligence Bureau, one of Pakistan’s intelligence services.

If he cannot count on the military’s support, the make-or-break question for Mr Musharraf will be whether he can prevent his foes from mustering the support of two-thirds of the senate and national assembly necessary for impeachment to go ahead.

The houses have a combined strength of 440 members. The PPP and PML-N have 230 members in the senate and the national assembly together. They will have to rely on another 65 votes from independent candidates and regional political parties to muster the required 295 votes for an impeachment.

Enlarging that coalition might require uneasy choices for a government seeking favour with the western world, including seeking the backing of the 24 members of the main Islamist alliance – the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal).

In the past, the MMA has demanded portfolios such as the ministry of religious affairs, a platform for it to enforce Islamic norms in areas such as government-run schools.

As president, Mr Musharraf still has the authority to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, though such an act would be riddled with difficulty. As he said himself recently “it would take an insane man” to dissolve parliament at this time.

Western diplomats say that, notwithstanding his authority as president, dissolution of parliament would provoke widespread international outcry, even among close allies. In that event, the US would have to abandon the generous economic support that George W. Bush, the president, has provided to Pakistan under Mr Musharraf. Additionally, the military, which is expected by some analysts to be seeking to acquire hardware costing more than $12.5bn (€8.08bn, £6.4bn) in the next five to seven years, would be hampered by the effect of possible sanctions.

As ruling politicians rally against Mr Musharraf, some analysts believe that he might now be close to the end of his tenure, barring an unexpected upset which saves his presidency.

“I believe President Musharraf’s position has become simply untenable. The mood has swung against him,” Ghazi Salahuddin, one of Pakistan’s most respected political commentators, said.

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