Pakistan: Impeaching rumours dog Musharraf's Olympic trip
Saeed Shah in Islamabad and Ewen MacAskill in Washington The Guardian, August 7 2008
The Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, wavered yesterday over a planned trip to China for the opening of the Olympics after reports that his political opponents were preparing to impeach him.
Musharraf, a close ally of the Bush administration, woke up to banner headlines in the Pakistan press suggesting he would be impeached. In apparent panic, he cancelled his flight but, after being closeted with advisers for several hours, announced he would go to China after all, a day later than planned.
Impeachment proceedings would plunge Pakistan into a fresh crisis, as Musharraf, who until recently was head of the military and is thought to still enjoy its support, has repeatedly said he will not allow himself to be forced out of office. The stockmarket slumped to its lowest level in two years on fears that the country was in for a new bout of political turmoil.
The coalition opposed to him, led by Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N and Asif Zardari of the Pakistan People's party, were locked in a meeting in Islamabad last night. Elections in February brought to power Musharraf's opponents but he stubbornly clung on to the presidency, which he seized in a 1999 coup.
The coalition has threatened impeachment before, but while this time the threat appears more serious, the government may opt against such a incendiary move and instead try other means to pressure Musharraf to stand down voluntarily.
Musharraf is close to the Bush administration because of help he has provided since 9/11 in the "war on terror". The Bush administration, torn between wanting to see a strongman in place in the fragile country and wanting to promote democracy, has praised him for having given up his post as head of the military and helping with the shift towards civilian rule.
But the main US preoccupation in the region at present is the failure of Pakistan to clamp down on the Taliban and al-Qaida forces in its border areas, which regularly cross into Afghanistan to mount attacks.
The US last month complained that "rotten" elements in the Pakistan intelligence service were aiding the Taliban. While the new civilian government tried to comply with US demands by bringing the intelligence service under its remit, the military, with the support of Musharraf, successfully blocked the move.
Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political analyst based in Lahore, suggested US support for Musharraf has cooled: "They won't be too perturbed now if he is knocked out by constitutional means. The Americans see that unless this issue is dealt with, government won't be able to function."
Musharraf's advisers let it be known he is prepared to "use his constitutional powers" to stop impeachment. Under powers he gave himself, Musharraf has the ability to dismiss the parliament - which should, in theory, be followed by fresh elections.
Ahsan Iqbal, a senior member of Sharif's party, said Musharraf "might make such a commando attack on parliament. But we will meet it. Let this be the final round, let there be a final victory for democracy."
The coalition may have the numbers required for impeachment but it is tight. Such a move would require a two-thirds majority, in a joint sitting of both houses of parliament. The upper house, the senate, still has Musharraf supporters making up half its strength. In the lower house, the coalition easily prevails.