By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 29, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 28 -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf scored a badly needed victory Friday when the Supreme Court cleared the way for him to run for another term, despite a challenge from opponents who say he is ineligible.
The 6 to 3 ruling, which dismissed a series of petitions seeking to knock Musharraf off the ballot, will make it difficult for rivals to keep him from winning another five years in office. The national and provincial assemblies are due to vote Oct. 6, and Musharraf is widely believed to have the support he needs.
The court had been seen as the best hope for Musharraf's opponents to end his eight-year rule. Anti-government lawyers argued that his other job as army chief should disqualify him. But the court's ruling means Musharraf can seek a new term from the lame-duck assemblies while remaining in uniform and then retire from the army if he wins.
Moments after the court issued its decision Friday afternoon, hundreds of black-suited lawyers who had packed the courtroom began angrily shouting "Shame, shame!" and "Go, Musharraf, go!" as the judges filed back into their chambers. Once outside, the lawyers continued to heap scorn on the court and said the government had pressured the judges to rule in Musharraf's favor.
"This is not a verdict. It is a dictation. The judgment was written at the president's house and was sent here to be announced," said lawyer Ali Ahmed Kurd. "This is a black day for Pakistan. The government has succeeded in getting six puppets in its hands."
Just two months ago, lawyers had celebrated the court for defying Musharraf and reinstating Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whom Musharraf had tried to fire. At the time, the lawyers confidently asserted that the judiciary, which has long been subservient to the military in Pakistan, had finally won its independence.
But on Friday, lawyers condemned the court's judgment and vowed to take their movement to the streets. The government, meanwhile, cheered the court's decision as the right constitutional choice.
"Justice has triumphed," said presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi, a retired general. "This is good for the future of Pakistan."
Qureshi said accusations that the government had pressured the Supreme Court were "ridiculous."
"It just goes to show what poor losers these people are," he said. "If something goes against them, they start crying like babies."
Although the lawyers cannot appeal Friday's decision, they are expected to file a new case as early as Monday using slightly different legal arguments. Chaudhry, who recused himself from hearing the case and was not on the bench Friday, could be involved in future cases.
Musharraf's opponents say the general, who seized power in a 1999 military-led coup, should be ineligible to run for reelection whether or not he is in uniform. Pakistan's president is banned from simultaneously holding another government job. Even after government servants step down from their jobs, they normally have to wait two years before they can run for office.
Musharraf, however, was given a special exemption after he broke a promise to retire from the military by the end of 2004. The exemption expires Dec. 31.
Lawyers seeking to disqualify him say he should not be able to win a new term that would last until 2012 using the current exemption. The government counters that the exemption still applies.
On Friday, the court avoided the substantive issues and instead appeared to throw out the petitions on a technicality. Political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said that means there is still room for additional challenges, though he conceded that "the odds are not in favor of the opposition."
"Musharraf got a major boost from today's ruling," he said.
Rizvi said the court may have been intimidated by talk among Musharraf's aides that the government would declare emergency rule, or even martial law, if the decision did not go their way.
Musharraf's popularity has been in free fall this year, and just weeks ago he seemed to be legally and politically trapped. But his government cracked down hard on some opponents while negotiating with others, and that strategy of division seems to be paying off.
Several opposing political parties have said they will resign from the assemblies on Tuesday to protest Musharraf's plans. That could lead to the dissolution of the assembly in the North-West Frontier Province, which could erode the credibility of the vote because all four provincial assemblies are supposed to participate. But it is not expected to affect the final outcome.
The assemblies, which came to office in 2002 elections that were marred by irregularities, are packed with Musharraf's supporters. Their term expires in November.
Many of Musharraf's opponents who had gathered at the court Friday conceded that their only hope for blocking Musharraf may be mobilizing large protests -- something they have not been able to do recently despite repeated attempts.
"This decision will now be fought in the streets of Pakistan," said Roebad Khan, a retired civil servant. "They are the ultimate court."