Pakistan's Supreme Court justice and a group of senior judges gave their tacit support to the country's new army leadership today, military sources said, removing the last potential legal roadblock to the imposition of military rule.
Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, the army chief of staff who declared a state of emergency and appointed himself the country's chief executive early this morning, held a 90-minute meeting with U.S. Ambassador William B. Milam that U.S. diplomats described as "good."
Milam expressed the Clinton administration's interest in the restoration of civilian rule but also listened at length to Musharraf's plans for forming a new government and tackling Pakistan's problems, the diplomats said. The general's plans reportedly include a sweeping overhaul of the political system, which most Pakistanis regard as corrupt and inefficient.
Public support remained extremely high for the new military rulers hours after Musharraf suspended the constitution and disbanded the National Assembly and regional legislatures.
Tuesday's military takeover, while falling short of full-fledged martial law, appears to have ended Pakistan's troubled attempt at democratic rule for the foreseeable future. This is the fourth time since the country gained independence from Britain in 1947 the armed forces have seized control.
The last period of military rule ended in 1985, and democratic elections in 1988 ushered in an 11-year period of uninterrupted civilian rule in which two parties, the Pakistan People's Party led by Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif, have alternated in power.
But Pakistanis became increasingly disillusioned with Bhutto and Sharif, accusing them of corruption, cronyism and tax evasion, and most Pakistanis welcomed the bloodless coup that overthrew Sharif. While most people say they still support democratic rule, there appears to be little support for rushing to hold new elections, which many people feel would only return power to a discredited political elite.
Sharif and Bhutto, who currently lives in London and is appealing a conviction on corruption charges from her second term in office, were on a list of names of leading politicians whose financial accounts were ordered frozen today, the Reuters news service said.
Sharif remained in custody in a military guest house in the adjoining city of Rawalpindi. Military sources said today he was examined by military doctors after complaining of dizziness. A number of cabinet ministers and regional officials also are under house arrest, and several military officers loyal to Sharif have also been detained. Some leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League were said to be in hiding, while party officials said dozens of others were unaccounted for and may have been arrested.
The United States said it would halt $1.7 million for a Pakistani non-governmental health initiative as a result of the coup. The move was largely symbolic, however, since U.S. aid to its one-time Cold War ally has been largely eliminated because of Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons. Pakistan tested a nuclear device last year.
Britain announced it had frozen all direct government assistance.
Despite the military's crackdown, some Western diplomats said there is a "certain amount of patience" abroad with Musharraf. The diplomats said this is because of the wide public support for the removal of the Sharif government and because Musharraf, a career soldier, appears to be taking a serious and responsible approach to major issues facing the country.
Musharraf was expected to address the nation on Saturday and lay out his plans. He appears likely to appoint a team of civilian experts and advisers to run the government while the military remains in control of the executive and legislative branches. The judiciary is being allowed to function, albeit under military restrictions. The streets of the capital, Islamabad, remained calm today and most businesses functioned as usual. The stock exchange in Karachi fell 60 points shortly after opening for the first time since Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear why Musharraf decided to wait until early today to declare military rule. He had spent the two previous days in extensive consultations with legal experts, the Supreme Court justice and President Rafiq Tarar seeking support for his actions. It now appears that the judiciary gave Musharraf assurances that it would not resist him.
Salman Shah, an economist from Lahore, said the military takeover could offer Pakistan "a fresh start" after years of corrupt and incompetent government. "This is a great opportunity for the country," he said. "If it is handled correctly, we have a chance to put Pakistan on the right track, and we can look to the 21st century with some hope."
One voice of dissent came from Mian Manzoor Wattoo, a politician from Sharif's home province of Punjab who has opposed him in the past. Wattoo said that officials "should not be misled by the silence on the streets." He said Sharif was "still a popular leader in Punjab, and army persecutions will make him more popular."
Musharraf's actions this week bear many similarities to the 1977 declaration of martial law by Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who ruled with repressive methods and extreme Islamic policies. But according to a number of legal and political analysts here, there are also important differences.
"The intent is very different. This intervention is motivated by need to act in a grave national crisis, not by personal ambition for power," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of strategic studies at Quaid-I-Azam University.