Pakistan's premier wins confidence vote

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani won a unanimous vote of confidence yesterday from the National Assembly and pledged to begin rolling back some of the authoritarian measures imposed in late 2007 by President Pervez Musharraf during six weeks of de facto martial law.

Gillani, who was sworn in Tuesday, was legally required to win a vote of confidence before his government embarks on its work. No Pakistani prime minister had ever won such a vote unanimously.

Yesterday's impassioned parliamentary session brought the latest indications that the new government, made up of the former political opposition, might make it impossible for Musharraf to remain in office, even in a much-diminished role.

Analysts and some opposition figures said the wall-to-wall support for Gillani suggested that the new government would probably be in a position to muster the two-thirds support needed in both houses of Parliament to impeach Musharraf, if it chooses to do so.

"We have the numbers for impeachment," said Kwaja Asif, a senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, or PML-N, the junior partner in the new ruling coalition, speaking to reporters after the parliamentary session.

But Musharraf's far-outnumbered party said the vote in favor of Gillani yesterday was merely a signal of willingness to work with the new government.

Musharraf's ouster would be a serious blow to the Bush administration, which fears that its longtime ally's abrupt departure from the political scene could trigger instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan and hamper efforts to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The Bush administration has been scrambling to build ties with Pakistan's new leaders, but two senior U.S. diplomats received a chilly reception during a visit last week. Many ordinary Pakistanis deeply resent the unflagging U.S. support for Musharraf over the past six months, even as he cracked down on political opponents, suspended the Pakistani Constitution and muzzled the broadcast news media.

The PML-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has repeatedly and stridently called for Musharraf's resignation.

The senior partner in the coalition, the Pakistan People's Party of assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto, has been more circumspect about what should happen to Musharraf. But Bhutto's party, now led by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, does support the reinstatement of judges fired last year by the president.

In his first policy speech yesterday, Gillani said that his government would work to restore the fired judges and order the lifting of restrictions placed on broadcasters during last year's emergency rule.

Gillani also said the government would be willing to negotiate with Islamic militants, but only those who laid down their arms.

The reinstatement of the judges could either trigger Musharraf's resignation or set the stage for legal steps to remove him. But the 64-year-old president, who seized power in a 1999 coup, still holds some political cards, including the technical authority to dissolve Parliament.

The fate of the deposed judges is thought to be linked to that of Musharraf.

In November, the Pakistani leader fired dozens of judges, including activist Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, as the Supreme Court was weighing legal challenges to Musharraf's election late last year by the previous Parliament.

On Monday, Chaudhry was freed from house arrest as Gillani's first official act after being confirmed by Parliament. Hundreds of joyous supporters flooded the residential compound where the jurist and his family had been held for nearly five months, chanting, "Go, Musharraf, go!" - their oft-heard demand that the president step aside.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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