Pakistan election limit lifted

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Top election officials announced a rule change yesterday under which President Pervez Musharraf would be allowed to stand for re-election while serving as head of Pakistan's military.

At the same time, though, the Supreme Court began hearing a welter of legal challenges to Musharraf's plan to seek re-election by lawmakers early next month in his dual roles as head of state and chief of the army.

Further complicating matters, a senior adviser to the beleaguered Pakistani leader floated what appeared to be a compromise offer to political foes, saying it was expected that Musharraf would relinquish his military post after being re-elected president but before being inaugurated.

"Inshallah [God willing], Gen. Musharraf would take his oath of office as a civilian president," his party's secretary-general, Mushahid Hussain Sayed, told reporters.

Musharraf's refusal thus far to give up the military uniform he has likened to a "second skin" has hampered power-sharing talks with exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and galvanized a pro-democracy movement that has forcefully demanded a return to civilian rule.

The general, who seized power in a 1999 coup and has since become a close ally of the United States, is fighting off an increasingly bold Islamist insurgency while he struggles with plummeting popularity.

The Bush administration is worried that his toppling could bring about a power vacuum that would give Islamist militants greater sway, and perhaps endanger the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Musharraf's opponents say most Pakistanis support centrist parties that are capable of maintaining security and stability.

Election-related rulings by the newly activist high court, expected in the next week, are likely to prove the pivotal factor in Pakistan's tense political standoff. A decree by the Supreme Court that Musharraf is ineligible to stand for re-election, for any one of a number of legal reasons being presented by opponents, would override yesterday's declaration by the Election Commission.

But such a verdict could provoke Musharraf to declare emergency rule or martial law. Either would give him broad power to muzzle opposition and put off parliamentary elections, which are to be held by early next year.

Opposition parties threaten to resign from provincial and national assemblies before the presidential balloting, which is expected during the first week of October. Musharraf's party says it has enough votes in parliament to secure victory without them, but mass resignations would tarnish the vote's already dubious legality.

In the various court cases, opponents are arguing that lame-duck legislators should not be given the task of re-electing the president; that it is unconstitutional for Musharraf to be elected while serving as army chief; and that even if he gave up his military role now, the constitution dictates a two-year wait before he could seek public office.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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