Pakistan's government is finalising a "charge-sheet" against Pervez Musharraf as battle lines are drawn in the bitter struggle over the President's future.
Several allies of Mr Musharraf began to distance themselves from him, saying he should stand down for the good of the country, but the former general again insisted he would fight the impeachment charges being prepared by his opponents. Meanwhile, the process to oust Mr Musharraf gathered additional pace as a crucial regional assembly overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence against him, saying he was "unfit" to rule.
Aftab Sherpao, a formerinterior minister in Mr Musharraf's government and leader of a small regional party, said he was considering joining those seeking to force out the President. "[Mr Musharraf] is going to fight these charges on a moral ground to try to disprove them... But when it comes to the numbers, I think he's lost it," he said.
The coalition government led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the late Benazir Bhutto and the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) had been expected to table their allegations against Mr Musharraf at a session of the parliament yesterday evening. But a coalition spokesman said the process was taking longer than expected because the charge sheet and its supporting documents was running to "100 hundred pages".
Government officials have said the charges against Mr Musharraf will focus on eight key points, including violating the constitution, damaging the economy and the sacking of senior members of the judiciary. The head of the PPP, Ms Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari, upped the stakes over the weekend when he said Mr Musharraf could also be investigated for corruption.
Mr Zardari – who has been accused of corruption during his wife's two terms in office – claimed Mr Musharraf had siphoned off for his own use millions of dollars in US military aid given as part of the so-called war on terror. Mr Zardari, who was granted an amnesty by Mr Musharraf last year against all charges, told The Sunday Times: "Our grand old Musharraf has not been passing on all the $1bn a year the Americans have been giving for the armed forces. The army has been getting between the range of $250m to $300m (£125m to £150m), reimbursement for what they do, but where is the rest of the money?"
On paper Mr Musharraf's options for avoiding impeachment look slim: the government insists it has sufficient numbers to secure a two-thirds majority in a vote before a joint session of parliament. Several allies of Mr Musharraf have privately suggested to him that he should step down to avoid an unedifying "battle for numbers" but, with the President locked in a series of crisis meetings yesterday with his aides, a key supporter repeat his insistence that he would fight the charges. Tariq Azeem, spokesman for the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) said the charges were baseless. "Absolutely President Musharraf will prove all this wrong. There is no way he will quit now quietly while being blamed for corruption," he said.
But in an indication of the strength of feeling against the former general, whose popularity plunged after his decision in May 2007 to sack the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the regional assembly in the vitally important province of Punjab voted by 321 to 25 to remove him. Among those politicians in Pakistan's wealthiest region were members of the usually loyal "Q" party.
While the vote may have few legal implications, it adds to mounting pressure and the sense that the President is – according to a headline in one Pakistani paper – "past his shelf life". The assemblies in Pakistan's remaining three provinces are due to hold similar votes in the next few days. The coalition says it expects all the assemblies to pass the no-confidence vote.
Many observers believe the decision by the coalition to hold ballots in the regional assemblies is a way of seeking to persuade Mr Musharraf to resign and avoid an impeachment battle. Some analysts believe a "safe exit package" is already being negotiated for him by the army's chief of staff, General Ashfaq Kayani and the US government.
"Negotiations are going on for a safe exit to be given to him. General Kayani will be meeting Mr Musharraf later this evening," said former general Talat Masood. "Shahbaz Sharif [Mr Sharif's younger brother] is acting as the interlocutor for the coalition. I think the Americans and the army are demanding he be given [safe passage]. Impeachment would mean a huge distraction from the war on terror."
It is widely assumed the decision to try to impeach the president was driven by Mr Sharif, who has bitter memories of Mr Musharraf's 1999 coup which forced him from office. At the same time there is much speculation about tensions within the coalition government and how long it can hold together, with or without Mr Musharraf in office.
One thing no one doubts is the scale of other challenges facing the government. Pakistan's economy appears increasingly dire and there have been widespread protests about rising prices and electricity shortages. At the same time, there remains concern about Islamic militants who represent a growing threat, both in terms of numbers and their expanding influence across the north-west of the country. More than 100 militants were reported to have been killed at the weekend in clashes with government forces along the border with Afghanistan.
The General's options
Mr Musharraf was yesterday supposed to be celebrating his 65th birthday and attending a relative's wedding. Instead, in circumstances unprecedented in Pakistan's 61-year history, he faced increasingly bleak prospects as experts said he had dwindling options. They are:
* To confront the impeachment charges head-on and face a vote in parliament. While the government says it has 350 votes out of 442 – a comfortable two-thirds majority – the president's supporters deny this. Such a battle would certainly be ugly and brutal.
* Dissolve parliament. Under Section 58-2:B of the Constitution, Mr Musharraf has the power to dismiss the prime minister and call a new election. The is the so-called "nuclear option" and would result in huge protests. Mr Musharraf's ally and leader of the PML-Q, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, said the president would avoid this measure.
* Use Supreme Court to block impeachment. The current bench of Supreme Court justices are hand-picked supporters of Mr Musharraf. He could wait until the impeachment process is completed and then instruct his malleable court issue a stay order.
* Announce a date for his resignation within the next six months, thereby seeking to take the pressure out of the impeachment drive and allow him to be seen to stand down at a time of his own choosing without humiliation.
* Go now. For a former commando and a man who said he would have the "last punch" he could take this option and surprise everyone.
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