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Bid to Impeach Pakistan's Musharraf May Be Uphill Battle

Pakistan's civilian government says it wants to impeach President Pervez Musharraf. Why the government feels the need to move now is not clear. As VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the former military ruler was already sidelined politically following elections earlier this year.

There is little question that a majority of Pakistanis want to see President Musharraf gone. His party was soundly trounced by an opposition coalition in the February parliamentary elections. A just-released poll of Pakistani voters by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute shows 83 percent of the respondents said they would like the new government to remove him.

But the bid to impeach the president raises two seemingly contradictory questions. What took the coalition government so long to make what would appear to be a popular political decision? On the flip side, why move against a president who is, for all intents and purposes, is effectively devoid of power?

The coalition has been divided by arguments about not only what to do about President Musharraf, but what to do about the judges he fired last year, precipitating a political crisis.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party is the junior partner in the governing coalition, has consistently and repeatedly called for President Musharraf to step down or be removed, and for the judges to be restored.

But Christine Fair of the RAND Corporation says the Pakistan Peoples' Party, the senior partner, has been more willing to cut deals with the president, particularly because such bargaining won an effective legal immunity for party leader Asif Zardari, the husband of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated during the election campaign. Zadari has been accused of corruption. He has repeatedly denied any misconduct.

"The very things that got it [the PPP] and also Nawaz Sharif so many votes are the very things that it is disincentivized from moving on," Fair said. "It does not want to restore the judges. It really does not want to impeach Musharraf because it made deals with Musharraf. And the National Reconciliation Order, of course, is the basis that absolves Zardari from so much from the alleged, and probably likely, wrongdoing."

Teresita Schaffer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, says it is very likely that Sharif's patience wore out, and he threatened to pull out of the ruling coalition, unless his demand for impeachment was met. But, she adds, another power-sharing deal might have been worked out.

"If there were a deal in which Zardari got to be president and Nawaz got to be prime minister again, how would that work? You know, on one level, it sounds like the basis for a concordat," she said. "At another level, it sounds like a nightmare."

President Musharraf could preemptively resign. As president, he also retains the power to dismiss the parliament. But most analysts believe that would be a huge misstep that would only accelerate his impeachment.

The wild card remains the military. Then-General Musharraf took power from Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999, and, until late last year, he was both president and head of the army.

The RAND Corporation's Christine Fair says the army is not too fond of him for his more controversial actions, but it also wants to avoid any messy proceedings that could smear the army's reputation.

"The army is in kind of a pickle. It does not want to defend Musharraf," she said. "But it also does not want its institutional equity to be drug [dragged] through the mud, when it is already down and out. So, I seriously doubt that they are [the government] going to get the numbers for an impeachment, and I think that that is probably going to be communicated to them [the government] one way or the other. And I think the army is going to be pretty active in subverting an impeachment."

With the re-emergence of civilian government, the military has pointedly said it wants to get out of politics. Teresita Schaffer, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says an impeachment could force the army and the onetime general back into each other's arms.

"I have felt for some time that the army did not want to stick its neck out any more on Musharraf's behalf," she said. "And, of course, Musharraf does not control the instruments of government. He cannot snap his fingers and have 2,000 people arrested like he used to be able to. At what point, and with what combination of provocations, have things reached a point where the military leadership will say, 'You know what, this is not working, we are going to have to go back to our old way of doing things."

A successful impeachment requires a two-thirds vote of both the lower house National Assembly and the upper chamber, the Senate.