Pakistan's Sharif holds off full attack on Zardari

ISLAMABAD Mon Dec 21, 2009 8:23am EST

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari looks on during his meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at Chigi palace in Rome September 30, 2009. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari looks on during his meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at Chigi palace in Rome September 30, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Remo Casilli

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's main opposition party said on Monday it would not support any unconstitutional action against President Asif Ali Zardari or his government but warned of protests if Zardari did not give up some powers.

Political tension has been running high in Pakistan since last week when the Supreme Court threw out an amnesty that protected him, several government ministers and thousands of others from corruption charges.

Zardari has faced some calls to resign but he has rejected them. He and his ruling party issued a defiant statement on the weekend, saying no members of the government would resign and condemning what they called a witch-hunt against them.

Several of Zardari's aides and two of his top ministers -- Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar -- were also on a list of people protected by the amnesty, and they too are facing calls to quit.

While some members of the main opposition party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, have called for Zardari and the two ministers to step down, the party has been circumspect.

A spokesman for the party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), said the party felt it was the "moral duty" of Zardari and the two ministers to step down, but it was up to them.

"If Mr Zardari and his ministers, who were covered by the amnesty, do not resign, that's completely up to them," the spokesman, Siddiqul Farooq, told a news conference.

"Mr Nawaz Sharif has very clearly stated that democracy has to go on and if someone thinks that he will do something unconstitutional, he won't get our support."

Sharif's party would not be part of any unconstitutional move against Zardari, the spokesman said.

"PAY THE PRICE"

The political tension comes as the United States has intensified pressure on its nuclear-armed ally to clear out Afghan Taliban along the Afghan border while Pakistan is battling its homegrown militants and their suicide bombers.

The unpopular Zardari, who is close to the United States, has been dogged by accusations of graft from the 1990s when his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister. He says the charges were politically motivated.

He was covered by the 2007 amnesty, introduced by former president Pervez Musharraf as part of a power-sharing deal with Bhutto, but he cannot be prosecuted now that the amnesty is over because he is protected by presidential immunity.

Polls show two-time prime minister Sharif, who has also faced corruption charges and spent time in prison, is Pakistan's most popular politician. Analysts say his party would likely win the next general election, due by 2013.

For that reason, Sharif wants to see the democratic system survive and does not want to risk inciting a coup and another period of military rule blocking his return to power.

Farooq also said the party was not pushing early polls but said Zardari's party would "pay the price" when they are held.

Analysts have ruled out any chance of a military coup for now. The danger for Zardari will come from the courts, they say.

He is expected to face legal challenges to the legitimacy of his 2008 election as president now that old corruption cases against him have been revived.

Sharif is, however, pushing for constitutional changes to transfer powers, that the autocratic Musharraf assumed for the presidency, back to the office of the prime minister.

Farooq said his party could call for protests if Zardari failed to "get rid of Musharraf's system."

Zardari's party said on the weekend the government was moving fast to finalize the necessary constitutional reforms.

But analysts say Zardari is reluctant to give up the powers, including the power to dismiss parliament and appoint chiefs of the armed forces, and become a ceremonial president.

However, some analysts say that with his position looking increasingly weak, that is probably the only way Zardari can hope to remain in office.

(Editing by Robert Birsel and Sugita Katyal)

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