By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 22, 2007 12:26 PM
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 22 -- President Pervez Musharraf's script for a tightly controlled political transition moved ahead on cue Thursday, as his hand-picked Supreme Court dismissed the final legal challenge to Musharraf becoming president for another five-year term and officials said he would resign as army chief within days.
Aides and supporters of Musharraf said they hoped that once he is sworn in as a civilian president, probably by this weekend, the barrage of domestic and foreign criticism against his imposition of emergency rule will recede and the nation's attention will turn to parliamentary and provincial legislative elections now scheduled for Jan. 8.
"All the issues making the politicians agitate will be resolved," said Tariq Azim Khan, the deputy information minister. "General Musharraf will take off his uniform and become Mr. President. The emergency definitely will be short-lived. The people should begin preparing for elections and let the best man win."
Yet even as the military-led government continued to free thousands of civilian protesters and opposition leaders detained in recent weeks, it intensified a crackdown on press freedoms and issued a decree that declared the permanent legal validity of Musharraf's emergency measures.
The decree, an amendment to the now-suspended constitution, appeared aimed at ensuring that no future court could find his actions illegal. Musharraf has refused to say whether he will lift emergency rule, which bans most civil liberties, in time for the planned elections.
"This amendment has been made only to protect an unlawful regime that is on its way out," asserted Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former Supreme Court justice who was deposed in 1999 when he refused to endorse Musharraf's military coup against the last civilian government. He said the move was a sign that even with the emergency powers, Musharraf is feeling pressure.
Musharraf has publicly vowed to step down as army chief "the moment" the high court validates his Oct. 6 election by the outgoing parliament and he is formally notified by the national election commission. Officials said he could shed his uniform and be sworn in as civilian president as early as Saturday.
The court, composed of 10 judges who agreed to serve under emergency rule and the suspended constitution, performed as expected by dismissing five legal challenges to Musharraf's election early this week, and then dismissing a sixth more minor challenge Thursday. Previous high court members who refused to sign a new oath have been suspended, and the senior lawyers who brought the major petitions against Musharraf's right to serve as president are now behind bars.
With national elections likely to take place in less than six weeks, however, it remains unclear whether Pakistan's divided opposition parties -- torn between playing into Musharraf's political scheme or standing on lonely principle -- will participate or boycott the polls.
The most prominent opposition leader, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, said she had not yet decided. Bhutto, who once sought a power-sharing deal with Musharraf, has become increasingly critical of him since returning from exile in October and being put under house arrest twice. However, she has also reportedly come under pressure from Washington to tone down her rhetoric and re-engage in the political process.
Another respected opposition leader, former cricket star Imran Khan, was released from jail Wednesday to a tumultuous public welcome and promptly urged all parties to boycott the elections, which he called "the biggest fraud in the history of Pakistan."
A third key player, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, remains exiled in Saudi Arabia. Sharif said Wednesday he hoped to return and register his candidacy, but Musharraf traveled there earlier this week and reportedly asked the Saudis not to allow him to leave.
Even if the planned elections are flawed, however, they could be sufficient to earn Musharraf a reprieve from mounting international criticism of his rule. Musharraf is a longtime U.S. ally in the war against terrorism, and the Bush administration, while urging him to lift emergency rule, has continued to support him and to suggest it will be satisfied if he fulfills his pledge to step down as army chief and hold elections.
Earlier this week, President Bush said Musharraf had not yet "crossed the line" and that he believed the Pakistani leader was a believer in democracy and "a man of his word." On Thursday, protesters here carried posters saying, "Where is the line, Mr. Bush?" and showing cartoons of Musharraf and Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, a former Pakistani dictator, as "Bush's favorite democrats."
Influential Musharraf allies in Pakistan, who strongly opposed his imposition of emergency rule, said that if he meets certain benchmarks such as doffing his uniform, freeing all detained protesters and civilian activists, restoring press freedoms and conducting orderly elections, the country's political crisis can still be settled peacefully.
"Emergency is indefensible, but we need a transition, and the political process must go on, warts and all," said Mushahid Hussain, a prominent senator in Musharraf's party. "If General Musharraf takes off his uniform in a peaceful manner it will be the first time in the history of Pakistan. The only other option is a military coup, and nobody wants that."