Pakistan's discussion on budget marked by tauting

Sunday, June 8, 2003

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Opposition lawmakers shouted down Pakistan's finance minister as he tried to present the budget Saturday, keeping up a deafening 40-minute barrage of abuse that exposed the depth of a constitutional crisis threatening this key U.S. ally's fledgling return to democracy.

The opposition is demanding that President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, give up his role as chief of the armed forces. They also want him to relinquish extra powers he decreed into the constitution that allow him to dissolve Parliament and fire the prime minister.

Opposition lawmakers -- led by a coalition of hardline Islamic groups -- have paralyzed Parliament for months, harassing speakers and staging mass walkouts.

On Saturday, they screamed, banged their desks, and hurled abuse as Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz struggled to keep his composure. At times, the din drowned out his voice as he detailed the government's $14 billion fiscal plan.

State television kept its cameras focused almost exclusively on Aziz, ignoring the near pandemonium in the rest of the chamber.

"This budget will prove a milestone to improve the economy," Aziz shouted, leaning into a stand of microphones in an effort to be heard over the din.

Musharraf's allies can push the budget through Parliament with their slim majority. But they will have a harder time winning approval for the constitutional changes the president decreed -- called the Legal Framework Order, or LFO -- which require a two-thirds vote.

"We will never accept the LFO, no matter what the cost," Hafiz Hussain Ahmad, a spokesman for the Islamic coalition, called the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, told The Associated Press.

He described the proposed budget as a "pack of lies, and contradictory figures" and said Musharraf's government "has done nothing for the betterment of the common man."

Musharraf has so far refused to back down on the added powers or to resign as army chief, saying he will stay in uniform as long as it is in the best interest of the nation.

The standoff has put the general in a bind.

Some fear that if he cannot get a deal, Musharraf could choose to once again rule by decree, as he did before allowing national elections in October 2002. But stripping away the facade of democracy in Pakistan would be a hard sell in Washington, and it might doom nascent peace talks with archrival India.

Musharraf has relinquished day-to-day running of the country to Prime Minster Zafarullah Khan Jamali, but he remains the most powerful man in Pakistani politics. It is Musharraf, not Jamali, that will travel to Washington later this month to meet with President Bush.

Musharraf's supporters, including Jamali, have promised that Parliament won't be short-circuited. But the prime minister warned Saturday that the opposition would be to blame if their protests have repercussions for democracy.

"It could harm the system" Jamali told Pakistan's official news agency. "And if there is any damage to the system, the opposition would be responsible for it."

The standoff could also be bad for the economy, which has been on a roll for the last year and a half -- fueled by a flood of remittances from Pakistanis living abroad, low interest rates and the rescheduling of the country's debt.

Saturday's budget proposal forecast 5.3 percent growth in the 2003-2004 fiscal year. It calls for about 20 percent of the budget, or $2.8 billion, to go to the armed forces.

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