Pakistan election panel opens way for Musharraf to run as army chief

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's Election Commission changed the rules Monday to open the way for President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to seek a new five-year presidential term without giving up the powerful position of army chief.

Opposition parties decried the move as a brazen violation of the constitution and accused the U.S.-allied leader of trying to bulldoze legal obstacles to his staying in power amid increasing demands for an end to military rule.

The ruling was likely to end up before the Supreme Court, which has proved an impediment to Musharraf this year and which many people hope can find a way to guide Pakistan out of a political crisis that some fear could lead to violent demonstrations and martial law.

The high court on Monday resumed hearing arguments on several petitions that seek to disqualify Musharraf as a presidential candidate.

Musharraf seized power in 1999 after a decade of chaotic civilian rule and pledged to eradicate Islamic extremism and bring "real" democracy to Pakistan. But he has yet to say publicly when he will give up his parallel post as army chief, the main source of his authority.

The five-member Election Commission, whose chairman was appointed by Musharraf, said it changed a rule for the presidential vote by legislators, due by Oct. 15, so a constitutional article barring government employees -- such as army officers -- from running no longer applies.

"The chief election commissioner of Pakistan has made the requisite amendment, with the approval of the president," the panel said in a statement.

The move appeared to signal Musharraf's determination to extend his rule and dimmed the promise of already-stalled negotiations between Musharraf and the moderate party of exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on a potential power-sharing deal.

It could also deepen divisions within the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party as Musharraf struggles to calm an intensified democracy campaign, as well as respond to the resurgence of Taliban and al-Qaida militants entrenched in the region along with border with Afghanistan.

Musharraf's popularity has plummeted since March when he tried to fire the Supreme Court's independent-minded chief justice, sparking widespread pro-democracy demonstrations led by the country's lawyers.

The high court later ruled the president could not remove the judge.

Musharraf retrieved some of the political initiative last week by blocking a personal challenge from another exiled prime minister, the man he toppled eight years ago in a bloodless coup. Nawaz Sharif was sent back into exile in Saudi Arabia just hours after he flew in.

However, in doing that, Musharraf has set up another showdown with the Supreme Court, which ruled earlier that the government could not prevent Sharif from coming home.

In the high court action Monday, arguments were made over six petitions challenging Musharraf's eligibility to run. They petitions included one by Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest Islamic group, on Musharraf's eligibility to stand again as president. It was unclear when the court would reach a verdict.

Bhutto forecast that the change in the election rules would further enrage the lawyers who mounted the well-organized protest campaign that preceded the reinstatement of the Supreme Court's chief judge.

"All political parties, irrespective of whether they were moderates or religious, regional or national, came together to back the lawyers and their movement and I think the same would happen again," Bhutto told The Associated Press late Sunday, when Pakistani media first reported the rule change.

Bhutto said her party might join other opposition groups in resigning from parliament. She said that for Musharraf to seek re-election in uniform would be "illegal."

Bhutto and Musharraf have discussed a deal that would include constitutional amendments to remove legal problems to the president running again and let her return home to seek a third term as prime minister in parliamentary elections due by January.

But the talks have snagged amid opposition from right-wingers in the ruling party who could be eclipsed if Bhutto made a triumphant return.

If it remains in place, the rule change announced by the five-member Election Commission would remove the need for a power-sharing pact.

The commission said it was updating its rules to reflect Supreme Court rulings in 2002 and 2005 that Article 63 of the constitution did not apply to Musharraf.

The article bars civil servants, including members of the military, from running for elected office. The article also says former civil servants must wait for two years before they become eligible for election. Some argue that makes Musharraf ineligible even if he quits as army chief.

The 2002 and 2005 court cases challenged the legality of Musharraf's presidency, including his holding of the office of president and army chief at the same time.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, head of a six-party coalition of Islamic parties in the opposition, said the latest move could destabilize Pakistan by discrediting the election commission.

"Gen. Musharraf is not getting off the bulldozer he has been riding" since toppling Sharif, Ahmed told the AP. "Now he is bent upon further ruining the constitution."

"We will block his way through street power and through every available forum," Ahmed added.

Mushahid Hussain, the ruling party's secretary-general, predicted Musharraf would step down as army chief shortly after winning parliament's presidential vote.

"I expect him to be sworn in as a civilian president," Hussain said, but he added: "It's my own personal view. I'm not in the government."

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