Pakistan's government has vowed to start impeachment proceedings against President Pervez Musharraf Monday, sparking concerns that a protracted constitutional crisis could distract Pakistan's four-month-old government from urgent matters, including a mounting pro-Taliban insurgency and a tumbling economy.
A session of the National Assembly, Pakistan's lower house of parliament, has been scheduled Monday to initiate proceedings against Mr. Musharraf, the long unpopular president whose power has diminished since the new government took over.
Many here hope that the president will resign. Yet even if Musharraf does step down, political debate for the coming weeks will be dominated by the question of who will take his place. "They will have to elect a new president – and a new squabble will begin," says Najam Sethi, editor in chief of the Lahore-based Friday Times newspaper.
The case for impeachment
Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999, resigned as Army chief in November after being reelected to serve a five-year term as president.
Yet the head of state has been increasingly sidelined since general elections last February, which were won by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), formerly led by two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December. Lacking a majority, it formed a coalition government with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party, and others.
On Thursday, the coalition's leaders – Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Ms. Bhutto, and Mr. Sharif – announced they would seek to remove Musharraf.
The grounds for his impeachment, they said, include mismanagement of the economy, the imposition in November of emergency rule for six weeks, and the firing, during that period, of nearly 60 judges.
As president, Musharraf has the power to dissolve parliament, and thereby avoid impeachment. Indeed, it is partly a desire to strip back presidential powers such as these that prompted the government to start impeachment proceedings.
But few believe that the president will choose such a course. To do so would prompt new elections, in which his political allies in parliament are likely to fare badly.
Meanwhile, militant battles grow
The United States, which had considered Musharraf a key ally in its fight against terror, has remained largely silent on the question of his impeachment, calling it an "internal" issue.
The US had backed a power-sharing deal between Musharraf and the Bhutto-led PPP in the hope that this would result in a strong, secular government that would fight terrorism efficiently.
Those hopes appear to have been in vain. Musharraf and Mr. Zardari have failed to forge an effective government, and an Islamic insurgency in the country's northwest has gained new momentum. On Sunday, gunmen killed eight policemen in the Swat Valley, which has been the scene of fighting between the security forces and Talaban fighters. At least 100 casualties have been reported in the past week.
A recent attempt to subject Pakistan's powerful Inter Service Intelligence agency – which is alleged to include Taliban sympathizers – to civilian authority has failed.
Musharraf vs. a divided coalition
While Zardari and Sharif have agreed to impeach Musharraf, their relationship is famously fractious. In May, members of Sharif's party withdrew from the cabinet after the PPP refused to restore the judges sacked by Musharraf. Last Friday, Sharif said some of them would rejoin the cabinet.
Talat Hussain, a political commentator and prominent Pakistani journalist, says that impeaching the government would be an achievement for this government; and the first such instance in Pakistani history. "The government has not done well in the first four months," he says. "To remove Musharraf would make it look as if they are doing something. It would be a huge political plus, but that … doesn't replace good governance."
If impeachment proceedings go ahead, they could take time. The nature of the procedure laid down in Pakistan's 1973 constitution means that the country may be in for a painful, long-drawn-out wrangle.
Impeachment requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament. After Monday's session, it would take at least a week, say analysts, to formally approve the start of proceedings, before both houses are called for a jury-like joint sitting to hear charges against Musharraf.
The Constitution does not set a timeline for passing a resolution, which means it could take weeks. The coalition would require the support of about 295 parliamentarians to get the impeachment motion passed from 442 seats in both houses; its existing strength is 277.
On Sunday evening, Musharraf's prospects were looking increasingly bleak, with some members of his main ally, the PML-Q urging him to quit.
Will the Army step in?
Political pundits, meanwhile, are keeping a close watch on the Army, which has traditionally played a decisive role in Pakistani politics. The nation has yo-yoed between military and civilian rule since its inception.
Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who succeeded Musharraf as chief of Army staff, has said he intends to keep the Army away from politics. But the decision to impeach Musharraf could test his resolve.
Ordinary Pakistanis, meanwhile, say they are tired of political wrangling and want action from their government. In particular, they are affected by the dismal state of Pakistan's economy. The stock market in Karachi has lost 35 percent of its value since the spring, and inflation is running at 25 percent.
In an Islamabad bazaar, Nawaz Haq, a storekeeper, holds up a loaf of bread costing 40 rupees. "Only recently it cost 20," he says. "But Pakistan has so many problems and the government does nothing to solve them."