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Pakistan coalition takes aim at Musharraf's clout

But a set of proposed constitutional reforms faces obstacles.

May 25, 2008|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — The senior party in Pakistan's ruling coalition on Saturday unveiled a long-awaited package of constitutional reforms aimed at sharply reducing President Pervez Musharraf's powers. But the plan faces many obstacles, not the least of which is unruly fighting within the coalition.

Musharraf's bitterest enemies, including lawyers groups, are demanding that the unpopular president be driven from office altogether, not merely sidelined.

They are threatening a campaign of massive street protests if Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the chief justice Musharraf fired last year, is not restored to his position along with dozens of other dismissed judges. Lawyer-led protests last year generated a groundswell of opposition to military rule under Musharraf.

The Bush administration is concerned that Musharraf's abrupt ouster could lead to instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan and hamper efforts to battle the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the country's tribal areas.

Under the proposed reforms, which would require approval by a two-thirds majority of lawmakers, the president would no longer have the power to dissolve parliament, or to appoint provincial governors and the head of Pakistan's military.

The U.S.-backed Musharraf, under intense international pressure, gave up his post as military chief late last year and allowed parliamentary elections to go ahead. His party was subsequently trounced.

Asif Ali Zardari, who took over leadership of the Pakistan People's Party after his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated Dec. 27, said the reform package would be put before lawmakers by the end of June. But the coalition, in power less than eight weeks, has found it hard to stick to self-imposed deadlines, including its pledge to reinstate the fired judges within a month of taking office.

Zardari has taken a more conciliatory stance toward Musharraf than has his main coalition partner, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. That has caused Zardari's domestic popularity to falter while Sharif's grows.

Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, has declared that the president must step down. Zardari has maintained that curtailing Musharraf's powers is preferable to an all-out confrontation.

"We intend to walk him away, rather than impeach him away," Zardari said at a news conference Saturday in the capital, Islamabad.

Strains within the coalition are building. Ministers with Sharif's party submitted their resignations this month because Chaudhry and other judges had not been given their jobs back. Chaudhry was fired in November, days before the Supreme Court was to have ruled on the validity of Musharraf's election to a second presidential term -- a verdict that was expected to go against the president.

Zardari and other party leaders said the reform package, of which they disclosed only the broad outlines, could still be altered before it is put to a vote.

In the latest of a series of noisy protests, lawyers and their supporters gathered Saturday in Islamabad to see Chaudhry off on a visit to the south of the country. Hundreds of cars, horns sounding, accompanied the former justice on the first leg of the road trip.

Protesters chanted their longtime slogan demanding the president's removal: "Go, Musharraf, go!"

After an initial lull in violence when the new government took power, attacks by Islamic militants have gradually been creeping upward. In Pakistan's insurgency-plagued northwest, two roadside bombings Saturday killed three people, including a district police chief, authorities said.

The new government has declared its intention to negotiate with militants who are willing to renounce violence.

One such accord already has been struck in the Swat valley, a onetime tourist destination about 100 miles north of Islamabad, where the government agreed to pull back troops and allow the imposition of Islamic law in exchange for an end to attacks.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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