Talks are under way that could lead to the resignation of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf or reduce his role to that of a figurehead as the ruling coalition steps up pressure to impeach him, an ally of the embattled leader said Friday.
However, a spokesman for Musharraf denied he was about to step down.
Political opponents of the president have suggested he could resign within days before an impeachment process that could begin as early as next week. But Musharraf's office said an impeachment could drag on for months because the procedure is not laid out in the constitution and there is no precedent in Pakistan's turbulent 61-year history.
Former army chief Musharraf dominated Pakistan for years after seizing power in a 1999 military coup, gaining favor from the United States after supporting it in the war on terror. But his rivals won February parliamentary elections and formed a coalition that has already largely sidelined him and is now seeking to push him out of office.
Both allies and rivals of Musharraf confirm that there are discussions in progress that could lead to the president's resignation.
"There are a lot of background talks going on, whereby a way is trying to be found so that there is no impeachment," Sen. Tariq Azim, a top official in the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, said Friday.
He said resignation along with legal protections such as immunity was one option and another was stripping the presidency down to a figurehead role. However, coalition officials rejected the idea of reducing his powers, insisting he must go.
Asked if Musharraf had decided to quit, Azim told The Associated Press he was still weighing his options.
"There are people who are advising him to avoid confrontation, but I don't think he has made up his mind."
Azim said all sides agreed an impeachment battle would strain the country at a time when it already faces critical challenges, such as a faltering economy and an emboldened Islamic militant movement.
"It is at the moment that Pakistan cannot afford confrontation," Azim said. "And it's obvious that the present government and President Musharraf cannot get along. So it is in the best interest of Pakistan that some way is found whereby this mode of confrontation can be changed or can be more conciliatory."
However, Musharraf's spokesman Rashid Qureshi denied he was about to resign or was seeking legal immunity in order to do so.
"These unsubstantiated spate of reports are totally baseless and malicious," Qureshi said. He claimed such talk was having a "negative impact" on the country's economy.
Musharraf, who gave up his dual role as army chief late last year, has grown increasingly unpopular through his tenure. Many Pakistanis blame rising violence in their country on his partnership with the United States. His popularity hit new lows in 2007 when he ousted dozens of judges and imposed emergency rule in bids to avoid challenges to his rule.
In recent days, the pressure on Musharraf to resign has grown. Three of Pakistan's four provincial assemblies passed resolutions this week denouncing the president and urging him to seek a vote of confidence or resign.
Ruling coalition officials have said an impeachment motion could reach parliament as early as next week and could be wrapped up by the end of the month. But officials in the presidency say it could take months as even the procedure for it is not laid out in the constitution.
The constitution says that the grounds for impeachment are violation of the constitution or gross misconduct. And no president has ever been impeached in Pakistani history.
"Once they issue impeachment proceedings against him and issue a charge sheet, then it will become almost inevitable that he will want to answer those charges," said Azim. "He feels very strongly that a lot of that is being said is not correct."
Pakistan's Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar said the ruling coalition was in touch with Musharraf's aides.
"We have conveyed to them that the coalition is determined for impeachment, and if he wants to save himself, the best way is for him to quit," Mukhtar said.
The ruling coalition has not voiced a united position on whether it would be willing to grant Musharraf legal immunity.
Mukhtar indicated Friday he would not oppose that.
"If a person moves to the side, we are not in the habit of bothering him. This would not be a good attitude, if someone is lying on the ground and we go aggressively against him."
Sharif opposes immunity
But on Thursday, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who leads the second biggest party in the ruling coalition, said he opposed granting legal immunity to Musharraf. Sharif's party has previously said Musharraf should be tried for treason.
Sharif, whom Musharraf pushed out of power in his coup, alleged the president had violated the constitution and compromised the nation's sovereignty, a reference to Musharraf's alliance with the U.S. in the war on terror.
As president, Musharraf still retains the power to dissolve parliament, but such a step would be enormously controversial, and even his allies have advised him against it.
Such a move also would require the support of the army, which has indicated it wants to stay out of politics. There have been no public signs that the army is coming to rescue its former chief — a significant factor in a country that has spent more than half of its 61 years under military rule.