Pakistan's government reaches out to opposition

AP News
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Posted: Dec 21, 2009 11:46 AM

Pakistan's embattled government reached out to the opposition Monday as it sought to limit the damage from a recent Supreme Court decision striking down an amnesty protecting several of its senior officials from corruption charges.

The court verdict has plunged Pakistan into political turmoil, distracting the government at a time when the U.S. is calling on the country to target Taliban and al-Qaida militants launching cross-border attacks against coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Some opposition members have called for officials who benefited from the amnesty, including President Asif Ali Zardari, to resign. But the Pakistan Muslim League-N's senior leadership has refrained from taking such a tough stance, a move that analysts say is driven by their desire to avoid destabilizing the country's fragile democratic system.

"I think the only real lifeline that can be thrown to the (ruling) Pakistan People's Party right now is if the opposition holds its fire and sees how this showdown between the political government and the judiciary plays out," said Cyril Almeida, an opinion writer for Dawn, a leading English-language newspaper.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani likely had that calculation in mind on Monday when he met with Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and chief minister of Pakistan's largest province, Punjab.

The two leaders "agreed that the present democratic system ... would be protected and strengthened at all costs to work for the welfare of the people," according to a statement issued by Gilani's office after the meeting.

The two parties continue to have serious differences, especially over the president's resistance to relinquishing extraordinary powers inherited from his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf. But the opposition does not want to rock the system so much that it opens up the possibility of a military coup, robbing the party of its own chance to take power, said Almeida.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the PML-N is in the game to form a government," he said.

Some opposition officials have called for the government to hold midterm elections, a move that would likely benefit the party since polls have shown that Nawaz Sharif is the most popular politician in the country right now.

Others continue to call for ruling party officials who benefited from the legal amnesty issued by Musharraf, including Zardari, Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar and Interior Minister Rehman Malik, to resign. The party has resisted those demands and has said officials will settle their fates in the courts.

The amnesty was introduced as part of a U.S.-backed deal to allow Zardari's wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to return from self-imposed exile in 2007. Bhutto was killed in a bombing in December of that year, and Zardari led the party to an election victory in 2008.

The Supreme Court's verdict means that thousands of corruption and other cases against politicians, bureaucrats and party workers dating back to the 1990s have, or will soon be, reopened. Many of the accused claim the charges against them are politically motivated.

Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office, but that has not stopped some opposition officials from calling for him to resign.

"Now that the two Sharif brothers are not asking for any resignations, this call does not have any weight," said ruling party spokeswoman Fauzia Wahab. "These calls are just trying to play to the gallery."

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Associated Press Writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report.