Musharraf speech sets off speculation
President Pervez Musharraf, facing impeachment, scheduled an address to the nation today, and it was widely speculated that he would resign.
The Pakistani leader, who for most of his tenure was considered a key but often problematic U.S. ally, has been under intense pressure to step down since the country’s ruling coalition announced Aug. 7 that it would seek to impeach him.
Musharraf’s spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, confirmed that the president would make a nationally televised address at 1 p.m. Pakistan time (midnight Sunday Pacific time), but would not say whether the 65-year-old leader intended to quit.
Until now, Musharraf has indicated through aides that he would fight impeachment, and analysts said there was a slim chance that the speech would be a show of defiance. But departure seemed more likely.
The Bush administration fears that Musharraf’s abrupt departure could bring new instability to a country that has nuclear weapons and whose government has little authority over tribal areas along its border with Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence has warned that elements of the Taliban and Al Qaeda have regrouped in the region, and Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding there.
The address was due only hours before parliament was to have convened in a prelude to the start of impeachment proceedings. No Pakistani president has been impeached in the nation’s 61-year history.
The speech comes six months after Musharraf’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, suffered a crushing defeat in parliamentary elections that swept his former foes to power and ushered in the first fully civilian government in more than eight years.
Initially, the main party in the new ruling coalition, that of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, seemed amenable to allowing Musharraf to stay on in a figurehead role. He gave up his role as military chief late last year.
But the junior party in the coalition, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was determined to drive Musharraf from public office. Sharif was overthrown by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, jailed and then sent into exile.
For the last several days, indirect talks had been underway between Musharraf’s camp and the ruling coalition aimed at securing an agreement from the president to resign. Close associates indicated that Musharraf’s main demand was full legal immunity from any acts stemming from his time in office.
Charges against Musharraf were said to include accusations of constitutional violations stemming from his declaration late last year of emergency rule, which is similar to martial law.
The Pakistani leader, who was still military chief at the time, suspended the constitution, fired dozens of senior judges, including popular Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, and threw thousands of opponents into jail.
The U.S., which supported Musharraf even as his popularity nose-dived in the last 18 months, had moved recently to distance itself from him.