ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Political allies of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged Wednesday that he could quit rather than face impeachment, as another provincial assembly voted against him and speculation mounted that his resignation was imminent.
While Musharraf has given no public sign that he plans to stand down, political pressure is mounting on the longtime U.S. ally, who dominated Pakistan for eight years until February elections brought embittered rivals to power.
The assembly in southern Sindh province on Wednesday passed a resolution urging him to resign _ the third of Pakistan's four provinces to do so this week. An impeachment motion could be introduced in the federal parliament early next week accusing the president of violating the constitution and gross misconduct.
The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party says the allegations are designed to deflect public attention from the government's failure to tackle growing economic and security problems. Inflation is running at over 20 percent and Islamic militancy is rife.
While the party says it wants Musharraf to fight the impeachment, it now acknowledges he could relinquish the presidency.
"He has two options: to stay and fight or quit and go home," Mushahid Hussain, PML-Q secretary-general, told The Associated Press. "If he fights back we are with him. We will support him, and that is the preferred option."
Hussain said that if Musharraf did decide to quit he should first rescind a corruption amnesty he signed last year that benefited ruling party chief Asif Ali Zardari and his late wife, assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto. The ruling party denies the president has that power.
The president should also restore senior judges he sacked when he imposed emergency rule in November, Hussain said.
"Then history will see him in a better light," Hussain said.
Another senior official in the party, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that Musharraf had discussed the possibility of resigning with friends and close aides from time to time since the February elections. The official had spoken to the president on Tuesday and knew of no imminent decision to quit.
The Daily Times newspaper on Wednesday cited an unnamed PML-Q leader as saying Musharraf had decided in principle to resign and announce it on Thursday, which is Pakistan's Independence Day.
It reported that if Musharraf resigns ahead of the impeachment, the ruling coalition would allow him to go into self-imposed foreign exile.
Neither PML-Q official could confirm that report, and Musharraf's spokesman did not respond to calls Wednesday seeking comment on it.
Musharraf has defied predictions of his political demise before. But diplomats from Western countries who have counted on him as an anti-terror ally say privately that his chances of survival are narrowing.
Even the president's supporters caution against him exercising his last-resort power to dissolve parliament _ a step that would likely spark outrage and require the support of the army.
"Using that power would be undemocratic under the present circumstances even though it is in the constitution. The democratic process should continue," Hussain said.
At a meeting on Aug. 7, top generals agreed the military would remain neutral if the coalition pursues impeachment, a senior military officer said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had conveyed this to the president, the officer said.
In a further sign of Musharraf's ebbing influence, a party that has long supported him, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, abstained from voting on the resolution against the president passed in the Sindh assembly by 93 votes to zero, as lawmakers shouted "Go, Musharraf, Go!"
"We are neutral," said an MQM leader, Sardar Ahmed.
Musharraf's allies claim the coalition will struggle to get the two-thirds majority required in a joint sitting of both houses of the federal parliament needed to strip him of the presidency.
But the coalition says it has the support of enough independent candidates and defectors from pro-Musharraf parties to win.
"We have the numbers, and you have already seen the tidal wave against him (Musharraf) in the provinces," Information Minister Sherry Rehman said.
In an interview with Geo TV, ruling party chief Zardari said he had asked Musharraf to resign via an emissary two months ago.
Asked why the president _ who gave up his dual role as army chief in November before ending a burst of emergency rule _ has so far stayed put, Zardari replied, "He has not done politics."
"He may consider himself a master tactician _ that is a tactician of war not a tactician of politics," said Zardari. "He does not know the ground reality."