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A power shift in Pakistan

Lawmakers take swipes at Musharraf as a new parliament is seated. But signs of internal strife are emerging.

March 18, 2008|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A new parliament dominated by foes of President Pervez Musharraf was inaugurated Monday, ushering in what is likely to be a concerted effort to curtail the near-total powers of the Pakistani leader.

The buoyant atmosphere, however, was dimmed by signs of potential disarray within the newly ascendant coalition formed by the two main opposition parties after they swept last month's parliamentary elections.

The party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, which won the largest share of seats, has yet to put forth a candidate for prime minister. There are signs of a power struggle between the expected candidate, an uncharismatic but respected party stalwart, and Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari.

Zardari, who had said he would lead the party from the sidelines without holding office, has signaled in recent days that he might seek the top political post. He would first have to win a by-election to meet the requirement that the prime minister be a member of parliament.

Because neither is a lawmaker, Zardari and the other main opposition leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, watched Monday's swearing-in ceremony from the visitors gallery.

Despite looming internal discord, the inauguration was a moment to savor for those who have long sought to dislodge Musharraf, the former general who seized power in a 1999 coup and went on to become a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against the fundamentalist Taliban movement. In the last year, Musharraf's popularity and prestige have suffered a steep decline, culminating in his party's crushing defeat in the Feb. 18 elections.

Though brief, the inaugural session of parliament provided opponents with the opportunity to take symbolic but stinging slaps at Musharraf, who was not present.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party pointedly noted that lawmakers were taking their oaths under the country's 1973 constitution, which Musharraf amended during a period of emergency rule. During that time, he jailed opponents, muzzled the electronic media and suspended basic liberties.

Lawmaker Ahsan Iqbal, a senior leader of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, read into the parliamentary record a statement declaring that the elections represented the public's repudiation of the coup under which Musharraf came to power.

Bhutto, who was slain Dec. 27, was something of a ghostly presence in the ornate chamber. Members of her party wore rosette-type badges depicting the late leader in her familiar white head scarf. At her party's call, lawmakers offered a prayer in her memory.

Though in a position to challenge Musharraf's authority, the new coalition does not have unfettered powers. It holds a solid majority in the 342-seat lower house of parliament that was sworn in Monday. But in order to impeach Musharraf or make constitutional changes, it would need to muster a two-thirds vote in the 100-member upper house as well as the lower one. It does not have the seats for that.

As president, Musharraf retains the power to dissolve parliament. Opponents have declared their intention to strip him of that authority, but the mechanism for doing so is not entirely clear.

The coalition has put itself under heavy additional pressure by pledging that within 30 days, it will reinstate judges fired by Musharraf during emergency rule.

Zardari and Sharif have said they intend to do that via a resolution passed by a simple parliamentary majority, but some constitutional experts question whether such a step would be legal.

Sharif said Monday that he did not believe the United States favored restoring the fired judges, in what could be an attempt to implicate Washington in advance should the initiative fail. U.S. officials have described it as an internal Pakistani affair.

The deposed jurists include the popular chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who has been under house arrest with his family since Nov. 3. The firing of Chaudhry and other senior judges was an opposition rallying cry during the election campaign.

Security will be a pressing concern for the new government. More than 500 people have been killed in the first three months of this year in militant attacks.

Word that four members of the FBI were among the 11 people hurt in the weekend bombing of a popular restaurant in Islamabad, the capital, sent a strong ripple of unease through Pakistan's diplomatic community, already rattled by the attack. A Turkish aid worker died in the bombing.

It was thought that the restaurant was targeted because it was a well-known gathering place for expatriates. But if any indication emerges that militants were able to track and target the FBI team, "that would be very, very worrying indeed," said a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"That kind of sophistication on their part would take things to an entirely different level," said the diplomat, who is familiar with detailed security reports but not authorized to speak on behalf of his government.

The State Department said there was no evidence the attack was aimed at the agents.

Security was extremely tight at the opening session of the new parliament. Police barricades kept onlookers far from the building, and most senior politicians were driven to the entrance and hustled inside.


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