Pressure is growing on Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to resign as his opponents in parliament sharpen their attack. The ongoing political tussle seems likely to distract from counterterrorism operations, backed by the Bush administration, at a time of simmering tensions.
Last week, in an attack claimed by Al Qaeda, a car bomb detonated outside the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, killing several people. Authorities said they later thwarted a separate terrorist attack when they seized three cars in nearby Rawalpindi loaded with explosives. Militants are suspected in a Monday attack that killed four policemen in Peshawar, capital of the volatile North West Frontier Province.
Thousands of lawyers and others opposed to Mr. Musharraf, who sought to remove the country's chief justice last year, rallied Monday in Karachi to begin a staggered protest march that is due to end Thursday in Islamabad. Agence France-Presse reports that civil rights activists joined supporters of secular and religious parties in the march led by black-suited lawyers who chanted "Go Musharraf, Go!"
Xinhua reports that the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association said the march, which will go to several cities, was to raise awareness about the need to reinstate independent judges. Aitzaz Ahsan said the march would be "completely peaceful" and that lawyers would not "storm any buildings or damage any property."
On Sunday, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), a government coalition party, presented a 10-point "charge sheet" with which to impeach Musharraf if he refuses to step down, reports the Dawn newspaper. The charges include specific allegations of gross mismanagement, human rights abuses, curtailing democracy, and corruption. The PML-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf overthrew in a 1999 coup, accuses the president of pushing the Army "into an undeclared war against its own people." Party officials say they have evidence to back their charges that would be presented in parliament in any impeachment hearing.
A day earlier, Musharraf called a rare news conference to quell rumors that he was to quit as part of a negotiated political deal with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the largest in parliament. "I will not resign in the present situation. I will live and die here," he said in televised comments, reports The Wall Street Journal. He also warned that the country was being destabilized by the politicking over his presidency.
His defiance was seen as a provocation to the PPP to try to impeach him if it could.
The PPP responded with strengthened rhetoric of its own. "Mr. Musharraf has no other option but to quit," a party spokesman said following the president's remarks.
Asif Ali Zardari, Ms. Bhutto's widower and chairman of the PPP, said at a news conference in Saudi Arabia on Saturday that the Parliament could move against the president and seek to oust him.
The Washington Post reports that Mr. Zardari has until recently played "good cop" to Mr. Sharif's "bad cop," holding back on public criticism of the embattled president in contrast to Sharif's staunch opposition. Now he and his party officials are increasingly vehement in attacking Musharraf. The shift in the PPP was seen in a stormy parliamentary session last week where members of Sharif's party called for Musharraf to be put on trial for treason and a PPP lawmaker issued a veiled threat of violence against him.
But Musharraf is not without his supporters. Marvi Memon, a newly elected member of parliament, staunchly defended him during the riotous session. In an interview, she dismissed the suggestion that Musharraf was preparing to resign, saying, "The president is a fighter."
Still, pressure on Musharraf to step down appears to be mounting in other quarters. The military he once led has been reshuffled since the appointment of his replacement, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani. Rumors of Musharraf's imminent resignation intensified last week when Kiyani named Brig. Faheem Rao as commander of the army's Triple-One Brigade, the unit charged with maintaining presidential security, replacing a longtime Musharraf loyalist, Brig. Aasim Salim Bajwa.
Musharraf has long looked to President Bush and other Western powers for support and styled himself as a bulwark against extremism, reports Reuters. But Western allies appear less worried now about his downfall than the prospects for further chaos in nuclear-armed Pakistan. The political debate over Musharraf is seen as distracting from the security challenge posed by Al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as an economic dip on higher oil prices and frequent electricity breakdowns.
Radio Australia reports that the PPP has already prepared constitutional amendments that would curtail the powers of the president in favor of parliament, a move that Musharraf has said he would resist. The PPP is said to be anxious to avoid a drawn-out battle by giving the president a "dignified exit." For his part, Musharraf wants immunity for his suspension last November of the Constitution and imposition of emergency rule.
In an editorial, the Daily Times argues that Musharraf wasn't as provocative in his weekend appearance as Pakistani media commentators have claimed and points out that his parliamentary allies did command a significant share of votes in February's election. There is also no legal reason why a president should resign when parliament falls into the hands of its opponents, though it now seems that there is no other path open, even as the debate exposes deep cracks in the governing coalition.
If one looks at the vengeful views expressed in the media, the political calculus goes against President Musharraf. That is why we recommend that he decide to quit now rather than risk impeachment later on when the parliamentary numbers are against him. Unfortunately, the case-history of antagonism among his opposition – read PMLN and PPP – is so strong that he may be deluded into holding on for some time longer.