ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's fragile coalition government set itself on a collision course with the country's U.S.-backed president Saturday with a plan to strip Pervez Musharraf of his powers.
The move could create further instability in the country and is likely to heighten US concerns that political infighting is taking attention away from the anti-terror fight. American officials have repeatedly warned that the next terrorist attack on U.S. soil is likely to come from extremists based in Pakistan's wild tribal region.
The Pakistan People's Party, which leads the coalition, announced a legislative package that would take power away from the presidency and return it to the prime minister, the directly elected official who is supposed to run the government under Pakistan's original constitution.
Such a move would rob Musharraf of the authority that he currently holds to dismiss the government and also to appoint the head of the army.
"Democracy and dictatorship do not mix," said Asif Zardari, who became head of the People's Party following assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, in December. "All powers will revert back to the parliament."
He described Musharraf as a "relic of yesterday."
The move was an abrupt change in Zardari's stance towards the president, following months in which he and his party had sought an accommodation with Musharraf — under pressure from Washington, many believe.
Abida Hussain, a leading member of the People's Party and a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, said: "It is going to be a big nuisance for Washington if an American-friendly dictator falls on the eve of the presidential elections."
Musharraf was chief of the army when he seized power in a 1999 coup and has been a steadfast supporter of Washington's "war on terror". He gave up his military position only in November last year and is likely to retain loyalty within the army.
The new government, which came in following elections in February, does not accept him as a constitutionally legitimate president, and with the army still Pakistan's ultimate arbiter of politics, it's not clear which side the military would back in a struggle.
"Musharraf may launch a final commando type attack on the political system and try to pre-empt his ultimate transformation into a powerless and spineless (president)," warned a commentary published Saturday in The News, a leading Pakistani newspaper.
There is even speculation that the president would use the power to appoint the army chief, while he still has it, to remove the current top general, Ashfaq Kayani, and replace him with a relative who currently runs Pakistan's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
According to some Zardari aides, who asked that they not be named because their weren't authorized to talk to reporters, the PPP leader became frustrated when backchannel negotiations with the president broke down after Musharraf rebuffed all attempts to forge an agreed exit for him.
"We tried patience, we tried to work with him. We tried to go the route of civility but he refused to see reality," said one aide.
Cynics suggested that Zardari's change of heart may also have been influenced by his personal situation: A legal amnesty granted to him by Musharraf has seen dozens of longstanding criminal charges dropped, the last of which was dispensed with in the last few days. That could have freed him to stand up to the president.
Until now, the main political battle since the election had been within the ruling coalition, after its second biggest member, the party led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had insisted that the government must reinstate the chief justice and other judges Musharraf fired in November.
The constitutional package unveiled by Zardari also sought to tackle the judicial issue but it would be unlikely to appeal to Pakistan's popular movement of lawyers, who have campaigned for the judges. It will also struggle to get through parliament, which still has sizeable members of pro-Musharraf political parties.
The plan would restore deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to office but then almost immediately retire him. On Saturday, thousands turned out to greet Chaudhry when he traveled from Islamabad to the central city Faisalabad to address a meeting of lawyers.
"Instead of resolving one crisis (the judiciary), another issue of instability has been introduced, a clash with the presidency," said Farogh Naseem, a constitutional expert. "I don't know if this country will be able to take it."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)