Pakistan's ruling coalition won't be able to easily impeach President Pervez Musharraf, opposition leaders warned on Friday, while some newspapers suggested the former army strongman should resign to spare the country another messy political fight.
Leaders of the main ruling parties announced on Thursday that they will seek to impeach the embattled president, accusing him of undermining Pakistan's economy and constitution.
Musharraf dominated Pakistan for eight years and became a close US ally after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks, but ceded control of the powerful army last year and has been largely sidelined since coalition parties trounced his allies in February parliamentary elections.
Though deeply disliked by many Pakistanis, Musharraf has insisted he will serve out the five-year term he was elected to in a contentious parliamentary vote in October, and has shown no signs of giving up without a fight after the impeachment plans were announced.
"This decision about President Musharraf's impeachment is going to open a Pandora's box," Mushahid Hussain, a senior figure in the main pro-Musharraf party, told The Associated Press on Friday. "It is not going to be that easy."
Hussain insisted his party will defend the president, while another Musharraf ally, Tariq Azim, said the coalition can expect "many legal challenges."
Azim suggested the coalition was not following constitutional guidelines in giving notice of impeachment, which could lead to a Supreme Court challenge.
Meanwhile, leading newspapers suggested the president should resign to avoid becoming the first Pakistani president to be impeached.
"There is no doubt he will fight back, but given the odds against him and the unity shown by his political opponents inside and outside Parliament he would be well advised to decide to bow out gracefully," the Dawn newspaper said in an editorial that declared the president's "political fate has been sealed." The Nation newspaper said a voluntary resignation would "save the country a lot of trouble."
Analysts say the ruling coalition, which has struggled with pressing economic and security problems it inherited, is not assured of victory. It requires a two-thirds majority of lawmakers to vote for removal in a joint session of both houses of Parliament. The coalition parties currently control 236 of the 339 seats in the National Assembly, or lower house, and as many as 51 of the 100 seats in the Senate, or upper house. That leaves it at least six seats short of what it needs to win, although it could gain the support of some of the 29 independent lawmakers or defectors from pro-Musharraf parties.
Ruling party chief Asif Ali Zardari expressed confidence the coalition would succeed. He declared on Thursday that seeking Musharraf's impeachment was "good news for democracy" in Pakistan. The decision followed marathon negotiations between Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister in Musharraf's 1999 coup and leads the second-largest coalition party. Their alliance forged after the February election victory was at risk of collapse over differences on how to restore judges fired by Musharraf last year and whether to oust him.
The decision to move against Musharraf appears to have eased the tensions, and Sharif's party was expected to decide Friday to rejoin the Cabinet, which it left during the internal coalition disagreements. Sharif said the process of impeachment would start "in the next few days."
Provincial assemblies will first be called on to pass resolutions demanding that Musharraf seek a vote of confidence from Parliament, which would show whether he has the support of lawmakers elected in February.
"If the president does not get the vote of confidence, then immediately with it, impeachment proceedings will start," said Zardari's party spokesman, Fahartullah Babar.
Musharraf supporters accused the coalition of trying to deflect attention from its failure during more than four months in power to address mounting economic and security problems.
Inflation in Pakistan is running at more than 20 per cent, and the country suffers hours of power outages daily. Food prices have soared. Worries over Islamic extremism are deepening. The US government, Musharraf's main Western ally, offered a measured response to the coalition's impeachment plans. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said Thursday the US wanted any actions in Pakistan to be consistent with the country's constitution and the rule of law.
Although the coalition leaders said they would move to restore the judges after dealing with Musharraf, they faced criticism for not making that the top priority.
Musharraf ousted dozens of judges to avoid legal challenges to his rule. "We are disappointed," Hamid Khan, a key figure in Pakistan's lawyers' movement, told GEO TV, noting that the coalition had not given any time frame for restoring the judges.