President Pervez Musharraf should quit within two days or prepare to be impeached, a top ruling party member said on Saturday as officials mulled over a draft of charges against the embattled Pakistani leader.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi's comments added to the mounting pressure on the former army chief, but an ally of Musharraf insisted the president was not stepping down and was prepared to fight impeachment charges he considers absurd.
The back-and-forth injected more uncertainty into the already volatile situation in Pakistan, a country whose stability the U.S. considers critical to success in the war on terror. Allies and rivals of the president have said back channel talks are under way to avoid an impeachment process that could damage public morale.
The ruling coalition has pushed Musharraf to quit. But his supporters want protections for him if he does, while suggesting they could use the courts to subvert impeachment. Local media reports that Saudi Arabian officials were trying to mediate could not be confirmed Saturday, though officials say diplomats from Western and Muslim countries have met in recent days with various actors involved.
The impeachment charges against Musharraf are expected to accuse him of constitutional violations and "gross misconduct." Coalition officials would not reveal specifics, though they have said his removal of judges and imposition of emergency rule last year could form the basis of those charges. They said a draft of the charge sheet needs final approval but could reach Parliament early next week.
"Musharraf is running out of time," Qureshi, a member of the main party in the coalition, the Pakistan People's Party, told reporters Saturday. "If he fails to decide to quit within the next two days, the impeachment process will take its course." Tariq Azim, a senior member of the main pro-Musharraf party, said the president would not quit. "President Musharraf is confident about defending himself in the Parliament and defeating the charge sheet easily because whatever he did, he did in the interest of the country and for the nation," Azim said Saturday. On Friday, Mushahid Hussain, another Musharraf ally, said the president may turn to the courts to forestall an impeachment. But Raza Rabbani, a People's Party member, warned Musharraf against being misled on his chances in the courts.
"The venue cannot be changed," Rabbani said. "This should be clear to everyone as impeachment is a constitutional affair, and that could only be done through the Parliament." Whether Musharraf decides to quit could depend on what his rivals are willing to offer _ in particular if they will give him legal immunity from future prosecution and let him stay in the country. Divisions have appeared in the ruling coalition on these issues. Sadiqul Farooq, a spokesman for the party of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif _ whom Musharraf ousted in a 1999 coup _ insisted legal guarantees were out of the question.
Sharif's party is the second-largest in the coalition, and it has said Musharraf should be tried for treason, which carries a maximum punishment of death.
"It will be in the interest of the country and the nation to make him an example in accordance with the Constitution and the law," Farooq said.
The People's Party has taken a softer tone.
Information Minister Sherry Rehman said Saturday that the party "never indulges in the politics of revenge as it wants a stable Pakistan and a sustainable democracy in the country." Musharraf dominated Pakistan for years after seizing power in a bloodless military coup, gaining favor from the U.S. after supporting its fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida. He gave up his dual role as army chief late last year, but by then he had grown very unpopular.
Many Pakistanis blamed rising violence in their country on his alliance with the United States. His popularity hit new lows in 2007 when he ousted the judges and used emergency rule. Musharraf's rivals came to power after February parliamentary elections, largely sidelining him.
The United States has toed a publicly neutral line since the coalition declared its impeachment plans last week, as has Pakistan's army, Musharraf's former power base.
If Musharraf quits, whether he could safely stay in Pakistan is an open question. He is despised by Islamic militants and has already survived multiple assassination attempts. Observers say an exile deal could send him to Turkey, where he spent some of his childhood, although other possibilities such as the U.S. or Britain also have been suggested.
Azim said no matter what happens, Musharraf wants to say in Pakistan.