Page last updated at 19:52 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 20:52 UK

Impeachment hopes and fears

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Pervez Musharraf, file photo from July 2008
Analysts wonder whether Mr Musharraf would risk sacking his government

The decision by Pakistan's new ruling alliance to impeach the country's President, Pervez Musharraf, has sparked jubilation as well as fears across the country.

If current opinion polls are anything to go by, Mr Musharraf has become the most unpopular leader in the country's history.

His public standing suffered a setback in March 2007 when he sacked Pakistan's chief justice.

It hit rock-bottom when he sacked nearly 60 judges eight months later to prevent them from overturning his re-election as president.

But he has been the chief of the Pakistan Army - the institution that has often acted as a major power broker in the country's politics during its 60-year history.

Mr Musharraf is seen as a favourite of the US. Many Pakistanis consider American political and financial support to have been a decisive factor in keeping the country's successive military rulers in power.

He also has the constitutional power to sack the government and the parliament on grounds of corruption and incompetence.

And by his own admission, he is a trained commando who never gives up without a fight.

Unwinnable vote

So has the ruling alliance left any room for Mr Musharraf to manoeuvre?

Nawaz Sharif (R) and Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad, 5 August 2008
Coalition leaders announced the impeachment proceedings

The measures announced by leaders of the alliance - which includes the Pakistan People's Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and some smaller parties - combine consensus building with legal procedures to oust Mr Musharraf.

Two simultaneous actions have been recommended.

The first is a move to get all the four provincial assemblies to adopt resolutions asking President Musharraf to seek a fresh vote of confidence from the parliamentary electoral college - which comprises the provincial assemblies and the two houses of the national parliament.

There is no way Mr Musharraf can win such a vote, given the composition of the present electoral college.

At the same time, the government says it has called the national parliament into session next Monday. That, according to Information Minister Sherry Rehman, "may start the impeachment proceedings".

Investigating committee

According to the law, half the members of either of parliament's two houses can table a motion for presidential impeachment by submitting a charge-sheet against him, which must be conveyed to the president within three days.

Before the vote, the president can choose to appear before the parliament or the investigating committee to defend himself

Subsequently, a joint sitting of both houses must be called not earlier than seven days, and no later than 14 days, to consider the charges and decide how to investigate those charges before putting the motion to a vote.

The parliament can appoint an investigation committee comprising its own members, or call upon extra-parliamentary individuals to conduct the investigation on its behalf.

Before the vote, the president can choose to appear before the parliament or the investigating committee to defend himself.

In the ensuing vote, a two-thirds majority is required from both houses to unseat the president.

Although there are no time limits, it is thought the complete impeachment process would take a minimum of eight days.

If complicated investigation procedures are involved, legal experts suggest the process could take more than a month.

Resign or fight back?

Would the process allow sufficient time for the never-say-die president to fight back?

He has two options:

  • Resign in the best democratic tradition, following the example of presidents faced with impeachment elsewhere in the world.
  • Or fight back, as he appears bent upon doing.

In the latter case, he can either indulge in horse-trading to wean precious votes away from the ruling alliance, or he can simply sack the government and the parliament.

His best bet would be to go for the horse-trading option.

While the ruling alliance is confident it will be able to muster the required vote to oust him, Mr Musharraf's parliamentary allies say they can deny his opponents the required two-thirds majority.

Sack parliament?

If the impeachment motion is defeated, that could decisively alter the political dynamics of the country in favour of Mr Musharraf and the military establishment, analysts say.

But public opinion trends suggest that most parliamentarians would be under pressure to vote against Mr Musharraf.

If such a possibility becomes apparent, will Mr Musharraf take the drastic step of sacking the government and the parliament?

He can constitutionally do so any time until an impeachment plea is filed, after which these powers will remain suspended until the process is over.

This means he has several days before an impeachment plea is made by the alliance.

But analysts are generally of the view that he will not take that drastic step.

Doing so would risk causing a major crisis in the country, where the civil society has long conducted a sustained anti-Musharraf campaign, and where the political forces opposed to him won a major election victory only four months ago.

In these circumstances, even the army may not come to his aid, for two reasons:

  • Firstly, the army is not as popular an institution in Pakistan as it was in the past because of its role in stifling democracy throughout the 1990s. It will be more concerned with rehabilitating its image in the post-Musharraf period.
  • Secondly, having failed to subdue the militants in the north-west when Mr Musharraf was in control of the government, the army now needs popular political support to combat the insurgency.

As for the US, Washington has already indicated it might switch from its dependence on military rulers to a wider interaction with the Pakistani civilian leadership.

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