Musharraf May Face Impeachment After Pakistan Vote
By Khalid Qayum and Khaleeq Ahmed; Bloomberg.com, February 17, 2008
Feb. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Pakistani voters decide today whether to empower a new parliament to challenge President Pervez Musharraf's military-backed rule.
His opponents, poised to win a majority, may try to impeach him if they win the required two-thirds of seats. Power sharing is likely if they fall short of that threshold.
``The national mood clearly indicates that political parties opposed to Musharraf will win a clear majority,'' said Hassan Abbas, a Harvard University political scientist. ``Even in moderately fair elections, anti-Musharraf parties will have an upper hand.''
Uncertainty likely will follow the election as lawmakers decide how to employ their power in a politically unstable, nuclear-armed country on the frontline of the war against terrorism. A suicide attack killed more than 40 people on the last day of campaigning on Feb. 16 after terrorist and sectarian killings doubled last year.
Pakistan's two main opposition parties -- the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party and former prime minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League -- both have called for Musharraf to step down. Sharif, 58, has gone further, promising impeachment proceedings. While not ruling that out, Bhutto's party has said it's open to sharing power with Musharraf.
Even a landslide opposition victory won't necessarily dislodge the president. Musharraf, 64, has the constitutional authority to dissolve parliament. That power and concerns about rigged balloting lead some analysts to predict that opposition clout will remain limited.
``The next government will most likely be a coalition led by a weak prime minister facing an arbitrary president,'' said Ishtiaq Ahmed, associate professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
Events have swung the public against the president in recent months, including former prime minister Bhutto's Dec. 27 assassination while campaigning. Support also has been undercut by his imposition of emergency rule in November, sacking of Supreme Court judges and detention of thousands of opponents, as well as inflation and electric-power cuts.
His approval rating dropped to 15 percent, from 30 percent in November, according to a late January opinion poll released Feb. 11 by the Washington-based International Republican Institute. About 75 percent wanted him to resign, up eight points from November.
Combined Opposition Majority
Fifty percent backed Bhutto's PPP in the new poll, and 22 percent backed Sharif's party -- more than enough to give the two parties a combined two-thirds majority. The pro-Musharraf Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam got 14 percent support.
``I totally disagree with the findings,'' said Rashid Qureshi, Musharraf's spokesman. ``Such polls do not reflect the sentiments of 160 million people.''
Neither Sharif nor the leader of Bhutto's party, her husband Asif Ali Zardari, 51, are on the ballot. Amin Fahim, the PPP's vice chairman, is the most popular choice as the next prime minister, the January survey said.
Fahim, 68, is a longtime parliamentarian who led the party for seven years while Bhutto was in exile. Pakistan's parliament elects the prime minister, who is typically the leader of the party or coalition with the most seats. Since Musharraf's 1999 coup, the presidency has held executive power, while the prime minister oversees domestic policy in consultation with the president.
Whatever today's result, Pakistan's military will continue to be a major power center, as it has for much of the nation's 60-year history. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., Musharraf has won praise from President George W. Bush for using the army to fight terrorists.
Musharraf, who seized power as army chief, appointed Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, 52, in November to succeed him as army leader. Kayani, who received military training in the U.S., is Pakistan's former spy chief and was an aide to Bhutto when she was prime minister in the 1980s.
``Pakistan's role in the war on terror will be decided by the army'' while ``the new political government will define domestic affairs,'' said Abbas.
Musharraf has emphasized his economic record to attract voters to parties that support him. The country's gross domestic product has doubled to $146 billion since 1999 with average annual growth of 7.5 percent in the past four years.
The opposition parties say the benefits of economic growth haven't trickled down to the general public, which faces wheat- flour, electricity and gas shortages amid inflation.
The PPP and Sharif have said they fear the government will rig the vote against their candidates, as do several international groups.
In a Feb. 12 report, New York-based Human Rights Watch predicted that Pakistan's election commission wouldn't handle disputes fairly because Musharraf appointed its chief. The president rejects such criticism.
``Despite all rumors, insinuations and every type of apprehension, these elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful,'' Musharraf said Feb. 15. Allegations of rigging could cause ``agitation, anarchy and chaos'' that won't be tolerated.
An estimated 81 million Pakistanis are registered to vote for 272 lawmakers in the 342-member parliament. The remaining 70 seats will be filled by women and minorities picked by legislators later.
Voting started at 8 a.m. local time and the 64,000 polling stations will close at 5 p.m. In five elections since 1988, voter turnout has been between 30 and 40 percent.
The government has deployed more than 80,000 soldiers to maintain security, declaring 19,000 of the polling stations at risk of terrorist attacks or political violence. It has warned journalists and election observers from the European Union, the U.S. and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to avoid certain areas, including near Afghanistan's border, where fighting against al-Qaeda terrorists continues.
To contact the reporter on this story: Khalid Qayum in Islamabad at firstname.lastname@example.org Khaleeq Ahmed in Islamabad at email@example.com