Musharraf decides not to declare emergency

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Gen. Pervez Musharraf decided yesterday against declaring a state of emergency, hours after senior officials in his government said such a step was under consideration.

An emergency declaration would have given the Pakistani leader, who is beset by plummeting popularity and the worst political troubles of his eight-year rule, sweeping powers to suppress dissent, muzzle the media and put off elections.

Some analysts speculated that talk of an emergency declaration was leaked by Musharraf's aides to gauge international and domestic reaction to the prospect of authoritarian rule in Pakistan. The nation is considered an essential, if problematic, U.S. ally in the war against Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan.

In some ways, response to the news was worse than the general might have feared. There were the expected expressions of alarm and dismay from human rights groups, the Bush administration and opposition parties, but also a distinct undertone of derision.

One Pakistani newspaper carried the Urdu-language headline "My Dear Countrymen ... ," in mocking reference to the formulaic pronouncement of martial law in coup-prone Pakistan. Some commentators said that even considering a state of emergency was a sign of desperation on the part of the president, who seized power in a 1999 coup.

"It's like a gambler trying one last roll of the dice," said Ayaz Amir, an analyst and commentator for the Dawn newspaper. "He wants everything his own way, and he doesn't want to give up anything. It's an impossible situation."

Musharraf's aides have said he wants to have himself re-elected in the next six weeks to a five-year term as president by the outgoing parliament and provincial assemblies, which are considered likely to bend to his wishes. He also wants to retain his position as chief of Pakistan's powerful military.

But constitutional challenges to this plan are all but certain, and Pakistan's Supreme Court has been greatly emboldened by its chief justice's successful resistance to Musharraf's efforts to remove him.

The president's attempts this year to sideline Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry backfired badly, triggering a grass-roots pro-democracy movement whose leaders are demanding that Musharraf renounce his army role and allow free and fair elections.

The Pakistani leader is also under pressure from Islamic militants who have vowed to take revenge for last month's storming of a radical mosque in Islamabad by government forces.

The insurgents have staged suicide bombings and other attacks in cities throughout Pakistan, as well as battling Pakistani troops in the tribal lands along the Afghanistan border.

This conflict was cited by some of Musharraf's senior associates as potentially warranting the imposition of a state of emergency. But legal experts said the level of violence did not appear to meet the criteria specified in the constitution for the government's assumption of such powers, which are to be reserved for times of war or domestic disturbances so severe that authorities cannot maintain order.

Musharraf arrived at the same conclusion after consultations with advisers and Cabinet ministers, a senior aide said.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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