The people of Pakistan - for so long bystanders to the political turmoil that routinely sweeps their country - are preparing for more dramatic change as the nation’s controversial head of state appears poised to leave office.
Eight-and-a-half years after he seized power in a military coup, Pervez Musharraf is involved in secret negotiations that will allow him to stand down and avoid a humiliating battle to fight off impeachment. Senior government sources involved in the talks believe Mr Musharraf is ready to resign and avoid an unseemly struggle providing he can secure immunity against prosecution and a favourable “safe exit” deal.
At the same time, wishing to keep his options option in case a deal is not forthcoming, the president has ordered his lawyers to prepare a strident defence against the charges that he is guilty of “subverting the constitution” and economic mismanagement. The president’s senior lawyer, Abdul Hafeez Pirzada said: “We are preparing his defence. They don’t know what they are getting into. They have pushed him into a corner. Maybe before, he might have thought about stepping down but not now.”
The uncertainty that currently hangs over Pakistan is the last thing the country needs or that its ordinary citizens can afford. As the politicians manouvre and position themselves in Islamabad in an endless series of self-serving parlour-games, the masses face an inflation rate of 25 per cent, their currency at a record low against the dollar, failing electricity and - in the north-west of the country at least - the everyday threat of militant violence. Ordinary people say they have no idea whether Mr Musharraf will stay or go but it seems they are faced with so many economic challenges, the issue appears not to be a priority.
When the coalition government announced last week its intention to impeach Mr Musharraf, the president’s aides said he rejected the charges and was confident of defeating any such motion tabled in parliament. Since then, however, Mr Musharraf has suffered the setback of seeing all four of the country’s regional assemblies vote overwhelmingly against him and a number of former allies distance themselves from him.
There are also reports the army - the most powerful institution in Pakistan - has indicated it would not support Mr Musharraf if he took the drastic step of dissolving the parliament. The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, appointed by Mr Musharraf last year, has publicly insisted that the military keep out of politics.
A report in the Daily Times, a Pakistani newspaper that has been broadly sympathetic to Mr Musharraf, said that in order to step down the president was insisting he be allowed to retain his house on the outskirts of Islamabad, keep the privileges afforded by the constitution to former president and receive a cast-iron guarantee he would not face prosecution.
Publicly at least, Mr Musharraf’s supporters continue to insist that the president will fight the impeachment charges, that could be tabled before parliament on Monday. One ally said Mr Musharraf had even raised the scenario that the military might intervene if the situation become too chaotic.
But a senior Pakistan government source said negotiations were underway between the Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) and a trusted friend of Mr Musharraf to reach a deal for the president’s departure that agreeable to both sides. The source, himself involved in the negotiations, said neither the PPP nor Mr Musharraf wished to proceed with the impeachment proceedings.
“I think he has made up his mind to resign,” said the government source. “We’ve said he can have what he wants - his house, his security. I think most likely that he will leave Pakistan. That will be more safe.”
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party which is part of the coalition government, appears to be a potential stumbling block in negotiations between the government and Mr Musharraf. Mr Sharif, who was ousted by then General Musharraf in a 1999 coup, has insisted the president should resign before negotiations on an immunity deal take place. Another government official: “Mr Sharif is very bitter…He takes things personally.”
This week Mr Sharif told a crowd in Lahore: “Should safe passage be given to someone who has done this to Pakistan? He wants safe passage by breaking Pakistan’s law. He wants safe passage by breaking Pakistan’s constitution. He is asking for safe passage by selling out Pakistan's sovereignty.”
If Mr Musharraf does go now, few in Pakistan would be surprised that his term has ended abruptly. The country’s military rulers have all fallen involuntarily and none of its civilian government has completed a full term in office. In the 61 years since its creation, its rulers have been forced by coups, hanged, shot, killed in a mysterious plane. If Mr Musharraf bows out gracefully for a life on the golf course and the lecture circuit, it will be a first.
To help ease his passage, reports suggest a number of outside countries including Britain and the US, have been lobbying the government to help Mr Musharraf to stand down. A senior Foreign Office official, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, this week met with Mr Musharraf, Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of the late Benazir Bhutto and head of the PPP, and other senior politicians. A spokesman for the British High Commission in Islamabad insisted, however, the talks were not about Pakistan’s current political crisis.Reuse content