ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for President Pervez Musharraf's election to a new term as president next week, dismissing legal challenges to the Pakistani leader's seeking office while still serving as the nation's military chief.
The 6-3 high court decision deals a heavy blow to the country's political opposition, which over the past six months has staged a concerted campaign to oust Musharraf and end military rule in Pakistan. The panel of judges did not include activist Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who, after thwarting an effort by Musharraf to fire him this year, recused himself from the case.
Armed with yesterday's ruling, Musharraf is expected to win Oct. 6 when lawmakers from national and provincial assemblies vote on whether to grant him a second five-year term as president. His almost absolute power is likely to be curtailed, however.
Musharraf, who seized power in a coup eight years ago, has promised to give up his post as army chief after he is re-elected and before he is inaugurated in mid-November.
That pledge by Musharraf was widely thought to have been prompted by heavy pressure from the grass-roots pro-democracy movement and by the threat that the high court might block his presidential candidacy.
Opponents said that Musharraf was constitutionally barred from seeking office while in uniform and also that a vote by the outgoing assemblies would be invalid.
During court arguments last week, Musharraf's lawyers promised that he would soon step down as army chief but also issued a thinly veiled warning that if he were not elected to another term as president, he would continue as head of the military, a powerful post from which he derives much of his authority.
The standing-room-only court chamber erupted in pandemonium as the tersely worded verdict was read. Lawyers in the spectators' gallery, who have been in the forefront of a campaign for a return to civilian rule, reacted with groans and shouts, then chanted, "Shame, shame."
Aides to the 64-year-old general had said previously that he would abide by whatever the court decided. But many observers had feared that if disqualified from running for a new term, Musharraf might take drastic steps such as dissolving parliament or declaring martial law, a step that would have essentially suspended civil liberties and probably would have resulted in a delay in parliamentary elections scheduled for early next year.
Some anti-Musharraf activists acknowledged that yesterday's court ruling, even though a disappointment, may have staved off a prolonged period of strife and chaos.
"In view of the total political atmosphere, it might be that this decision is wise, though hard to accept," said lawyer Zumir Husain.
The wording of the ruling left the door open for future challenges. The opposition's petitions were declared "not maintainable," which analysts said is distinct from saying they lacked legal merit.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.