Pakistanis to try ousting Musharraf

Special to The Times

In its first decisive move against Pakistan’s former military ruler, the governing coalition announced Thursday that it would seek to impeach President Pervez Musharraf unless he agreed to resign.

Musharraf’s allies indicated that he would fight the attempt to oust him from his civilian post.

The developments could usher in a fresh round of turmoil in Pakistan, which has spent the last 18 months in a state of political upheaval.


Pakistan is considered a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, although relations have lately been badly strained by American concerns over whether the country’s new civilian government has the resolve to confront Islamic militants.

The Bush administration, which supported Musharraf as his popularity plummeted last year and throughout a deeply unpopular bout of de facto martial law last fall, is concerned that his abrupt ouster could bring instability. But U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said the president’s fate was an internal Pakistani issue.

The move against Musharraf is a rare show of unity by the two main parties in the ruling coalition, which have squabbled their way through their first five months in office.

“The coalition . . . decided that it will immediately initiate impeachment proceedings,” Asif Ali Zardari, head of the Pakistan People’s Party, said at a news conference in Islamabad, the capital. “The coalition leadership will present a charge sheet against Gen. Musharraf.”

Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, was the general in charge of Pakistan’s military until he relinquished that post late last year.

The other main party in the coalition, that of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has sought from the beginning to push Musharraf out as president also. Sharif, who was deposed by Musharraf in the coup, has been insistent on the former general’s departure from the political scene. Zardari until now was more willing to allow him to stay on as president, although with significantly diminished powers.

The coalition’s move comes at a time of sharply growing domestic discontent over soaring food and fuel prices, along with rolling blackouts that disrupt daily life in big cities such as Karachi and Islamabad.

Musharraf’s camp suggested the coalition was trying to bolster its own popularity by making him a scapegoat.

“If you ask the ordinary person, what they are upset about in the country today is not the presence of the elected president,” said Tariq Azim Khan, a former government minister and spokesman for Musharraf’s party.

Amid rumblings this week about an attempt to push Musharraf aside, the newspaper Dawn, citing associates of the president, quoted him as saying, “I will defeat those who try to push me to the wall. . . . I will go down fighting.”

At the news conference, Zardari sought to put the blame on Musharraf for what he called the country’s “critical economic impasse,” saying the roots of the current food and power woes lay in Musharraf’s years in power.

“The incompetence and failure of his policies has thrown the country into the worst power shortage in its history . . . and eroded the trust of the nation in national institutions,” said Zardari, widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He took the party’s helm after her Dec. 27 assassination.

Musharraf has insisted that he would serve out a five-year term endorsed by the previous parliament late last year. Critics say that vote was invalid because Musharraf was still military chief at the time.

The former general is on generally good terms with Pakistan’s powerful military, but analysts largely discounted the possibility that it would intervene to keep him in office.

As president, Musharraf retains the constitutional authority to dissolve the government. Chaos could result if he attempted to wield that power rather than be pushed aside.

“Ideally, the army would want him not to be impeached, but I don’t think they are going to stand behind what would in essence be a military coup,” analyst Nasim Zehra said.

If it comes to an impeachment vote, the coalition does not have the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament. But some analysts believe that many independent and small-party lawmakers, and perhaps even some defectors from Musharraf’s camp, would jump on the bandwagon to vote him out.

“We hope that 90% of the lawmakers will support us” in an impeachment vote, Zardari told reporters.

No date was set for the vote, but the coalition said it would convene parliament next week.

Anti-Musharraf sentiment has been apparent since his party’s decisive defeat in February parliamentary elections. But until this week, Zardari was reluctant to join Sharif in direct calls for his ouster. The coalition held three days of marathon talks over the issue.

In what was seen as a clear sign of worry over the growing groundswell against him, Musharraf on Thursday canceled a planned trip to the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Because of the importance of China as a Pakistani ally, that is considered a serious step.

Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani flew to Beijing in Musharraf’s place.


Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer King from Kandahar, Afghanistan.