By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 17 -- Pakistan swore in its newly elected Parliament on Monday, setting the stage for a political clash with the government of President Pervez Musharraf a month after voters handed a victory to the country's major opposition parties.
The long-awaited first session of the 342-member National Assembly convened at Pakistan's gleaming white Parliament house amid tight security, two days after a deadly bomb attack on a popular restaurant in the center of the capital.
Sharpshooters with rifles at the ready stood atop almost every corner of the massive building as a parade of black and silver bulletproof SUVs deposited legislators and Pakistani luminaries at the crowded entrance.
One of the first to arrive was former prime minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League faction and a strong supporter of the president. Hussain, who lost his parliamentary bid last month, said the convocation of the new Parliament signaled fresh hope for his party and Pakistan: "The future is very bright. It is the first day, and we pray that everything will be all right."
Musharraf's political prospects appeared far from assured, however, as members of a Parliament generally hostile to his government streamed into the building for the swearing-in ceremony.
The heads of the two leading parties voted into power Feb. 18 have vowed to restore the country's beleaguered judiciary within 30 days of the formation of the new government -- a move seen here as a direct challenge to the president's authority.
The reinstatement of judges deposed under Musharraf's rule could trigger a legal case against the president leading to his ouster, a development that many members of Parliament said Monday they would welcome.
"Musharraf has to go. He has no future in this country, at least," said Khawaja Muhammad Asif, a newly elected legislator. "Maybe he has a future in the U.S."
Musharraf, a top ally of the United States in the fight against al-Qaeda, has long enjoyed Bush administration backing, but his support among his own people has waned in recent years.
The former army general's standing with the public here eroded considerably after he fired the chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court last March. The move, widely viewed here as an effort to silence judicial challenges to Pakistan's powerful and pervasive intelligence services, prompted a constitutional crisis that has continued for months.
Musharraf's star fell further during a series of controversial events.
In July, a government raid on extremists barricaded inside an Islamabad mosque led to more than 100 deaths. In November, the president ordered the dismissal and house arrest of 60 judges following a declaration of a state of emergency.
Then in December came the assassination of opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Her death triggered widespread protests and helped sweep her Pakistan People's Party into power last month.
Bhutto's widower and political successor, Asif Ali Zardari, has since joined forces with Bhutto's onetime rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party received the second-largest number of votes in last month's elections.
Retired Gen. Rashid Qureshi, the president's chief spokesman, said the president was cheered by the swearing-in of the new Parliament and was looking forward to cooperating with the new leadership in the legislature.
"It's one of the most satisfying days of his eight years in office. He kept saying before the elections that this was the third and final phase of the transition to a democratic process," Qureshi said. Musharraf took power in a military coup in 1999.
In the next week, the new Parliament is to select a new prime minister, which could set in motion impeachment proceedings against Musharraf.
"This is the last day of dictatorship. This is our first step," Zardari declared, following a meeting with Sharif at Parliament on Monday.