The collapse of a deal granting Pakistan's president and thousands of other officials freedom from prosecution on graft charges has triggered fresh political turmoil just as the army wages a major battle against Taliban militants near the Afghan border.
Some analysts are predicting the development could force President Asif Ali Zardari out of office, a familiar prospect in a country where no civilian leader has served out a full five-year term since the state was founded 62 years ago.
Others dismiss that possibility and blame a sensationalist media, opportunist opposition politicians and elements in the
army unhappy with civilian rule for fueling the crisis and distracting the government from more important issues like terrorism, education and health care.
The uproar is a concern for the U.S., which wants Pakistan to remain focused on fighting insurgents threatening the security of the nuclear-armed country and expand the fight to militants attacking Western troops across the border in Afghanistan. "Pakistan can hardly afford another political crisis at a time when the challenge from Taliban extremists has really increased in recent weeks," said Ishtiaq Ahmad, professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "What you need is relative political stability and an economy that is really marching ahead."
Speculation over the president's future escalated after he was forced to abandon an effort to get parliament to approve a decree issued in 2007 by his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf. The agreement granted over 8,000 government bureaucrats and politicians, including Zardari and many others from the Pakistan People's Party, immunity from a host of corruption and criminal charges.
The amnesty list was part of a U.S.-backed deal to allow Zardari's late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to return from exile in 2007 and run for office safe in the knowledge she would not be dogged by corruption allegations. The U.S. and other Western powers supported the bid by Bhutto, who was seen as a secular and pro-Western politician.
But Bhutto, who was forced from her post twice in the 1990s because of alleged corruption, was killed by a suicide bomber shortly after she returned to Pakistan. Zardari took over as co-chairman of her party and was elected president in September 2008 by federal and regional lawmakers.
Over the weekend, the government released the list of some of those who had been protected by the decree, including the interior and defense ministers. Those listed have protested their innocence against what they deem politically motivated charges filed by a military-led investigative body from 1986 to 1999. Many have expressed a willingness to fight in court.
"The PPP co-chairman, our ministers and our members have no issues with going forward with these cases," said presidential spokeswoman Farahnaz Ispahani. "Ninety percent of them were politically motivated cases."
Zardari, still known as "Mr. 10 Percent" because of unproven corruption allegations when he was a minister in his wife's government, was deemed eligible to run for president because of the amnesty issued by Musharraf. But the Supreme Court declared the decree unconstitutional earlier this year, prompting Zardari to try unsuccessfully to ratify it in parliament.
It was the latest setback for the president, who has seen his approval rating plummet over the last year as Taliban and al-
Qaida militants have waged a deadly insurgency from their base in the country's northwest and the economy has foundered.
Zardari enjoys general immunity from prosecution as president, but the Supreme Court could choose to challenge his eligibility for the post since Musharraf's decree was never passed into law. "There are fine lines and hairsplitting arguments to whether he was eligible to conduct elections," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "If that case of eligibility goes to the court, he could have a problem and be ousted that way."
Earlier this year, Zardari waited months to fulfill a promise to reinstate the Supreme Court chief justice after he was sacked by Musharraf, a delay that many analysts believe was fueled by his fear that the judge would reopen corruption cases against him. Ispahani insisted that Zardari should be protected by presidential immunity but said he has nothing to hide.
"Even though it is highly unlikely, if the president has to fight again in the courts, he will fight," said Ispahani. The specter of the army taking power in a coup always hangs heavy over Pakistan since it has happened three times before, most recently with Musharraf. But analysts said the current army leadership has shown no interest in such a path, especially while fighting a major offensive in the South Waziristan tribal area, where Taliban and al-Qaida militants are believed to be hiding.