Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, viewed by the White House as a loyal ally in the war on terrorism, is fighting for his political life. His rivals in parliament could vote as soon as this week to impeach the former army chief and remove him from office.
USA TODAY’s Paul Wiseman looks at the efforts to oust Musharraf and what they might mean for the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Q: Why are Musharraf’s opponents trying to remove him from office?
A: Musharraf’s future has been cloudy since February, when a coalition of opposition parties gained control of parliament and vowed to remove him from office.
Musharraf’s popularity has eroded under the weight of near-constant political and economic crises.
His democratic credentials have been in doubt since he seized power in a coup in 1999, and he came under further scrutiny last year after he fired judges opposed to his rule and declared a state of emergency.
The government’s U.S.-sponsored efforts to pursue Islamic militants are deeply unpopular and have led to near-constant violence, especially in the mountainous tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. At least 100 militants have been killed in the past few days as Pakistan’s military bombarded the area, the Associated Press reported.
In a poll of 3,484 Pakistanis released in June, the International Republican Institute found that 11% approved of Musharraf and 85% wanted him to resign.
Musharraf spokesman Rashid Qureshi has said Musharraf will never quit.
Q: What are the charges in the impeachment case?
A: The specific charges are still being fine-tuned. They may include a charge that Musharraf siphoned off $700 million of the $1 billion the United States provided in annual military aid to Pakistan. That allegation was made in an interview with The Sunday Times of London by Asif Ali Zardari, who took over the Pakistan Peoples Party after the assassination of his wife, former two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Tariq Azim Khan, a Musharraf ally in parliament, dismissed Zardari’s accusation as “absurd.”
In addition to the impeachment push, the legislatures of Pakistan’s four provinces are voting this week on motions of no confidence against Musharraf. Monday, lawmakers in Punjab province voted 321-25 for the anti-Musharraf resolution. The vote even had support from 35 members of the main pro-Musharraf party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.
The provincial votes aren’t binding — but are potent symbolically; Musharraf was elected to a second five-year term as president last year by a combination of national and provincial legislatures.
Q: Why is this happening now?
A: The Pakistan Peoples Party balked at impeachment proceedings until shedding its misgivings last week. Lawyer Maneer Malik, a leader in pro-democracy protests last year, says Musharraf himself is to blame for the party’s change of heart: The president had recently threatened to dissolve parliament, arousing the Peoples Party’s ire.
Q. Will the impeachment drive succeed?
A: The coalition needs two-thirds — 295 of 442 — of the votes in parliament to oust Musharraf. “This is a numbers game,” Information Minister Sherry Rehman, longtime Peoples Party spokeswoman, said in an interview. “And we have more than the numbers we need” to push Musharraf out.
Malik predicts that as many as 75% of the votes will go against Musharraf.
“It is all a big bluff,” counters Musharraf ally Tariq Azim Khan, who expects to coalition to come up well short of 295 votes.
Journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of the recent book Descent Into Chaos on the rise of Islamic militancy in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the rest of Central Asia, is among those who worry that the army might intervene to keep the former general in office. But Musharraf’s replacement as army chief — Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani — has been reluctant to get involved in politics.
“We’re not worried,” Information Minister Rehman says. “The army has maintained a strongly professional stance since the new chief has taken over.”
If the army stays on the sideline, Rashid says, Musharraf is “a goner and probably will resign” before being ousted.
Q: What impact would Musharraf’s departure have on the war on terrorism?
A: Since Musharraf reversed Pakistani support for the Taliban after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and in Pennsylvania, President Bush has viewed him as a staunch ally in the war on global terrorism.
On Musharraf’s watch, Pakistan has turned hundreds of suspected militants over to the United States and provided logistical support for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Musharraf and the Pakistani military have been unable to stop pro-Taliban insurgents from staging suicide attacks across the country, from seizing territory in the tribal belt and from crossing the border to wage war against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Musharraf has failed to rally public support against the militants. The Republican Institute poll found that 71% of Pakistanis say Pakistan should not cooperate with the United States in the war on terror.
Journalist Rashid says an elected civilian government might prove a lot more effective in uniting the public against the militants.
“They haven’t been tested yet,” he says. “The test would come very soon if Musharraf were to go.”
Wiseman reported from Hong Kong. Contributing: Zafar M. Sheikh and wire reports.