Musharraf in the Crosshairs

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Mark Renders / Getty

President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf

Storm clouds have gathered over Pervez Musharraf once again as the beleaguered Pakistani president's opponents have closed ranks and are now seeking his impeachment.

After two days of frenzied activity in the Pakistani capital, the leaders of the two largest parties — who rule by way of a fragile coalition government — have decided to unite to oust the deeply unpopular ex-army chief. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif also appear to have broken their months-long deadlock over the fate of the judges that Musharraf sacked last November.

Sitting below a portrait of his slain wife at his Islamabad home, Zardari hailed the decision as "good news for democracy." "The coalition leaders believe that it has become imperative to move for impeachment," he told reporters. At his side, Sharif glowed with a kind of relish. "This person committed an oppression against Pakistan. That's why the parliament has decided to impeach him," Sharif added. Musharraf first came to power by staging a coup against Sharif in 1999.

Sharif and Zardari's breakthrough is likely to prove popular, and may even help offset their failures to arrest an overwhelming economic meltdown. It will, for now at least, strengthen their coalition, which constantly threatens to collapse. But they should be prepared for a fight. Musharraf has gambled away a lot to remain in office — he has given up his uniform, allowed his enemies to return from exile, and even overseen a free and fair election where he was dealt several blows. He is unlikely to give up what remains of his power easily. This is a man who said last year that he will have "the last punch".

The impeachment process is likely to be long, painful and, depending on how Musharraf reacts, ugly. Zardari said that a "charge sheet" will be drawn up against the president. The charges to be advanced against him are likely to include "high treason" for mounting the 1999 coup and for the imposition of the state of emergency last November, when he suspended the constitution and sacked the judiciary.

Musharraf has said in the past that he would rather resign than face the prospect of impeachment. Resignation is an option the coalition would also prefer over an all-out confrontation. The impeachment timetable allows Musharraf space to quietly step aside Proceedings are unlikely to begin until late August, and even before then pressure will be applied. The legislatures of the four provinces will ask the president to seek a "vote of confidence," and given his supporters' dramatic defeat in February, Musharraf is unlikely to survive that event.

Indeed, Musharraf's options are few. Since stepping out of his military uniform last November, and being shorn of his parliamentary base in February, his authority has sharply diminished. But there is one arrow he can still reach for in his fast-emptying quiver: the power to dissolve parliament. Described as "the nuclear option," it would plunge Pakistan into a fresh phase of deep uncertainty and could even lead to unrest in the streets as each half of the coalition maneuvered to win full control of Parliament. However, a new election is likely to further empty parliament of Musharraf's supporters.

Those supporters, now reduced to the dwindling ranks of the opposition, have vowed to resist the move to impeach Musharraf. "This is a gimmick," says Mushahid Hussain, a prominent senator and close ally of the president. "If they are going to open up a new front, then they've raised stakes and all bets are off. I don't think they would have control of the consequences of their own decisions. They're getting into something that they have no capacity to deal with"

If Musharraf chooses to dig in his heels and fight back, he could conceivably call upon time-tested allies. He survived the past few months with the help of Washington and the army he once led. The Pakistan Army has a record of unchallenged unity and may not wish to see one of its longest serving chiefs humiliated. But will it risk further damaging its image by intervening? Gen Ashfaq Kayani, the new chief, was appointed by Musharraf and served as his intelligence chief. But Kayani has been keen to distance the army from politics and is likely to keep to that course.

Washington is another question. American administrations have traditionally favored military strongmen over weak civilian governments. President Bush has routinely praised Musharraf in almost effusive terms and maintained complicit silence over his sacking of the judiciary last year. And with renewed anxiety over militancy in the tribal badlands, and disappointment with the civilian leaders' failure to tame it, the Bush administration may wish to hang onto the man it once termed its "most allied ally."

However, Ahmed Mukthar, the Defense Minister and a senior member of the PPP, says he is convinced that neither the U.S. nor the Pakistani military would come to Musharraf's aid. "The army is totally out of politics, and the Americans are going to support democracy over any individual." Indeed, as White House spokesman Tony Fratto reiterated after the news broke: "The internal politics of Pakistan is an issue for the Pakistani people to decide. Our expectation is that any action will be consistent with the rule of law and the Pakistani constitution. It is the responsibility of Pakistan's leaders to decide on a way forward to succeed as a moderate, modern, and democratic country."

The other important agreement among the coalition partners was the decision to reinstate the judges Musharraf sacked. According to Zardari and Sharif's joint statement, all the judges will return to their original positions after an "executive order" has been passed. Until now, the issue threatened to split the delicately stitched alliance. Sharif pulled his ministers from the cabinet after Zardari backtracked on an earlier agreement. The PPP has had deep reservations about Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice who sparked Pakistan's political crisis last year when he refused to resign under pressure from Musharraf.

But the equivocation lost the PPP considerable support as critics accused it of trying to preserve Musharraf in office. There were charges of vested interest: the Musharraf appointed-court had cleared Zardari of corruption charges against him through an amnesty issued by the president. Chaudhry, the deposed chief justice, has threatened to revoke that order. In the end, after a long night of negotiations, Zardari relented. The only injustice perhaps left is that Chaudhry will have no say in Musharraf's fate. He will not return to the bench until Musharraf is out of office.

With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington