Musharraf foes sworn into office

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A new parliament dominated by foes of President Pervez Musharraf was inaugurated yesterday, ushering in what probably will be a concerted effort by the victorious opposition to curtail the near-total powers the Pakistani leader once held.

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. The delay comes amid signs of a power struggle between the expected candidate, an uncharismatic but respected party stalwart, and Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari.

Zardari, who said earlier that he would lead the party from the sidelines without holding office, has signaled in recent days that he might seek the top political post for himself. First he would 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 yesterday's swearing-in ceremony from the visitors gallery.

Despite looming internal discord, the inauguration was a moment to savor for people 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 Taliban and al-Qaida. In the past year, Musharraf's popularity and prestige suffered a steep decline, culminating in his party's crushing defeat in Feb. 18 elections.

Although 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 subsequently was amended by Musharraf during a period of emergency rule. During that time, he jailed opponents, muzzled the electronic news 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 herself 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.

Although 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 yesterday. But in order to impeach Musharraf or make constitutional changes, it would need to muster a two-thirds vote in the 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 would reinstate judges fired by Musharraf during emergency rule. Zardari and Sharif say 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 legally valid.

Sharif said yesterday 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.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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