Pakistan's ruling parties threaten to impeach Musharraf

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Pakistan is heading for more political uncertainty after the country's new civilian leaders resolved to impeach President Pervez Musharraf, the deeply unpopular former army chief.

The move came as the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto and the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) were locked in two days of "make or break" talks over the fate of their fragile coalition government.

"It is the unanimous decision of the two parties to go for President Musharraf's impeachment," said Ahmed Mukhtar, the Defence Minister and a senior member of the PPP, in an interview. "I think he will try and resist, but he will fail. We waited, thinking that there was a better way out for him. But he continued to interfere and that is the main reason for this."

In response, Mr Musharraf, who delayed his departure for the Beijing Olympic Games because of the crisis, has threatened to use his constitutional powers to dissolve the newly elected parliament, the Dawn News channel reported last night. Despite his popularity falling to an all-time low, the President has remained in office with the support of Washington and the army he led until November.

The prospect of impeachment first arose in the aftermath of the elections in February, in which Mr Musharraf's supporters were well beaten. Mr Sharif, whose government was overthrown by General Musharraf, as he was then, in a coup, has long called for the President to be held accountable for imposing a state of emergency last year. But until now the PPP has been reluctant, fearing the confrontation.

Since February, Mr Musharraf has led a largely cloistered existence. In a rare press conference last month, he insisted that most of his time is spent "socialising, playing tennis and golf". But his opponents insist he has been asserting himself through backstage manoeuvres. Over recent weeks, as the new coalition government struggles to cope with the pressures of a fast-souring economy and Islamic militancy, he has slowly stepped into the public eye.

The enduring controversies over the fate of Mr Musharraf and the judges he sacked last year have threatened to pull apart the delicately stitched alliance between the two parties. Mr Sharif withdrew his ministers from the cabinet in May after Asif Zardari, head of the PPP, backtracked on an agreement to reinstate sacked judges. For its equivocation on the issue, the PPP has lost considerable support and even had to face accusations that it would prefer to preserve Mr Musharraf.

There is yet to be a breakthrough on the issue of the judges. Mr Sharif and the vocal lawyers' movement insist they must be reinstated immediately. But the PPP has resisted these calls, and has deep reservations about Iftikhar Chaudry, the deposed chief justice who sparked Pakistan's political crisis last year by refusing to resign under pressure from Mr Musharraf. "We will reinstate the judges," said Farhatullah Babar, a PPP spokesman. "But in the case of Iftikhar Chaudhry, he has become perhaps too political ... maybe it is time for him to step down in a dignified manner."

Mr Musharraf's political supporters, now reduced to the opposition, have said they will resist all attempts to impeach him. "They should instead be cracking on with the main issues affecting this country," said Mushahid Hussain, a prominent senator and close ally of Mr Musharraf. "If they are going to open up a new front, then they've raised the stakes and all bets are off."

It is unclear how the army, which has routinely intervened in politics, will react to impeachment. The new army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani was appointed by Mr Musharraf but has distanced himself from politics. "The army would not like their former chief to be embarrassed and humiliated publicly," said Zaffar Abbas, of Dawn newspaper. "But if this is the way to keep the coalition intact, General Kayani, the army chief, will probably come to be on the side of the civilian government."