Panel Backs Musharraf Remaining Army Chief

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 18 -- Pakistan's election commission announced a rule change Monday that could allow Gen. Pervez Musharraf to remain army chief even as he seeks another term as president.

The commission said a key section of the constitution does not apply to presidential elections, drawing immediate condemnation from pro-democracy groups and Musharraf's political opponents. They say the panel is supporting Musharraf unfairly at a time when the Supreme Court is weighing his eligibility to run for a new term this fall.

The commission, whose members were appointed by Musharraf, says the updated rules reflect recent Supreme Court decisions and denies the change was made specifically to help the president, who is elected by the parliament and provincial assemblies. The commission issues eligibility guidelines before each election.

The decision throws another variable into a turbulent political situation that appears to be nearing a climax, with Musharraf, a U.S. ally, struggling to hold power as critics call for his ouster. Musharraf, who took control in a 1999 military-led coup, is required to win a new five-year term if he wants to stay on as president. But his popularity has sunk to an all-time low, and opponents question the legality of his plan to win another term from a parliament that is set to expire in less than two months.

The Supreme Court on Monday began hearing a challenge to Musharraf's eligibility to run for office. Lawyers seeking to remove Musharraf's name from the ballot say he should be disqualified because public servants are constitutionally required to resign their government jobs and wait two years before they can run for most political offices, including the presidency. Mohammad Akram Sheikh, the lead attorney on the case, said that means Musharraf is ineligible "either in or out of uniform."

But the election commission's interpretation is that the constitutional requirement does not apply because of special exemptions for the president. The commission said the change was made based on Supreme Court decisions in 2002 and 2005. The rules were updated, the commission said, "with the approval of the President."

An organization that promotes democracy in Pakistan questioned whether the commission was pressured by the president. The decision "raises serious doubts about the independence of the Election Commission and its ability to hold free and fair election in Pakistan," according to a statement by the nonprofit Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.

Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister who has been negotiating a possible power-sharing deal with Musharraf, reacted angrily to the rule change. Her party spokeswoman, Sherry Rehman, accused the commission of "changing the goal posts and rules to tilt the field in favor of a military president to prolong his rule."

Beyond the legal arguments, the question of how long Musharraf can stay in uniform has important political implications. Pakistan's hugely influential army is considered Musharraf's strongest constituency, and he is seen as vulnerable if he is not in direct command.

Musharraf aides have said recently that he plans to step down as army chief later this year, but not until after he is elected to another term. At a Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday, government lawyer Sharifuddin Pirzada confirmed those plans.

Opposition parties have vowed to resign from parliament in protest if Musharraf tries to win reelection while in uniform. Bhutto, who plans to return to Pakistan on Oct. 18 following eight years in exile, has not said what her party will do if Musharraf does not give up his army post.

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