A move by Pakistan’s usually fractious governing coalition on Thursday to impeach President Pervez Musharraf left the country on the brink of a political crisis that threatened to paralyze the government at a critical moment when the United States is demanding greater action against militants based here.
The governing coalition set no formal deadline for the start of impeachment proceedings against Musharraf, a favored U.S. ally, leaving open the possibility of a protracted and debilitating political fight that could take months of haggling to secure the parliamentary votes needed for impeachment. The actual charges have yet to be announced.
It also raised the threat that Musharraf would try to dissolve the Parliament, or that he would look to the army for protection, though many analysts said the military was unlikely to intervene. “The army preference is not to get involved and for the constitutional process to be followed so there is the least amount of disruption to the system,” said Shuja Nawaz, the author of Crossed Swords (Oxford University Press), a book on the Pakistani military. “They would not want to be drawn into it.”
The announcement that the civilian leaders would seek impeachment, made at a news conference here, was the culmination of months of wrenching political changes after the assassination of the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in December and the decisive victory of her party in elections in February. Since then, the leaders of the country’s two major parties, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, have forged a tense governing coalition that has teetered on collapse.
Zardari, the head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, have barely been on speaking terms. For the last several days, they were closeted in meetings on how to keep their fractious coalition together.
Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister by Musharraf in the 1999 coup, has been pushing Zardari to join impeachment proceedings against the president. Zardari had been resisting, but this week he apparently decided that the one way to keep the coalition functioning was to undertake a frontal attack on Musharraf, who is immensely unpopular, after having ruled Pakistan as a military leader for eight years until late 2007.
On Thursday, the two coalition leaders issued a joint communique saying their government would “immediately initiate impeachment proceedings” and that it would “present a charge sheet against General Musharraf.”
Musharraf was described by his allies as determined to fight back, and met all day on Thursday with his political backers and his constitutional lawyer, Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada. In an indication of the gravity of his situation, the president called off his trip to attend the opening of the Olympic Games.
Many Pakistani officials said they believed Musharraf would seek support from the Bush administration. It has endowed Pakistan with more than $12 billion of mostly military aid since 9/11 for its cooperation in combating the insurgency of the Taliban and al-Qaida that is washing over the border into Afghanistan and conducting attacks on U.S. troops there.