- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan — The Supreme Court all but chose Pakistan’s next president yesterday by ruling President Pervez Musharraf can seek a second five-year term while continuing to wear his uniform as army chief.

Gen. Musharraf, a key ally of Washington in the war on terror, will not face voters directly. Instead, an electoral college consisting of the national parliament plus four provincial legislatures are to cast ballots Oct. 6. With a divided opposition and many lawmakers planning to resign in protest, the general is all but assured of winning another term.

A key question is when Gen. Musharraf will become Mr. Musharraf.

He has promised to take off his uniform and retire from the military on Oct. 15 — provided he wins the presidency. Should everything go as planned, Pakistan would return to civilian rule eight years after Gen. Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup and later had the constitution amended so he could be president.

“Pakistan has crossed a critical milestone in its march to democracy,” Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters. “The judgment will put to rest concerns regarding the credibility and qualifications of President Musharraf for contesting the election.”

A nine-judge panel of the Supreme Court based its split decision on largely technical grounds, skirting broader constitutional questions by claiming politicians, not courts, should sort out the nation’s political woes. Three justices dissented.

The opposition, meanwhile, geared up for a week of protests, with supporters of the leading Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, getting an early start by throwing eggs and tomatoes at the marbled edifice of the Supreme Court building in Islamabad.

Public approval of Gen. Musharraf has dropped sharply in the past six months. A botched attempt to fire the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry (who did not participate in yesterday’s verdict) cost him support of professional groups and Pakistan’s growing middle class.

Separately, a military takeover of a radical mosque in downtown Islamabad angered Islamist militants who have a long history of cooperating with Pakistan’s army.

“There had been a lot of uncertainty over the [presidential] post, but today’s court decision has removed that uncertainty. There are no more roadblocks to his election,” said Ayaz Amir, a leading political analyst.

“For the U.S., that is good because Musharraf is their horse. The Pakistan army is stuck in North and South Waziristan fighting the fundamentalists, and Musharraf is not going to change that,” Mr. Amir said, referring to two tribal zones along the Afghan border where Washington says al Qaeda and the Taliban plan attacks on Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The United States played an unusual role in Pakistan’s latest political crisis by helping arrange a series of meetings between Gen. Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto with the long-term hope that an alliance of the military and political moderates would develop.

“It all sounds good on paper, military and moderates getting together,” said Mr. Aziz, the political analyst. “But the general’s pro-U.S. polices are only strengthening fundamentalists in the tribal areas.”

Wajihuddin Ahmed, the presidential candidate for a coalition of lawyers and a former Supreme Court justice himself, said his group planned to file additional challenges before the court in a last-ditch attempt to halt the election.

“The matter has assumed two aspects: the constitutional and legal battle we are fighting, and the other is taking place where major political [parties] are threatening to walk out of the assemblies and thereby assure that there is no credibility to the election,” Mr. Ahmed told the Dawn cable TV news channel.

A group calling itself the All Parties Democratic Movement says its members would resign from the national and provincial parliaments to protest yesterday’s decision.

Mrs. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is not participating in the mass resignation and is hosting its own presidential candidate, Makhdoom Amin Fahim.

“The strategy of the PPP is restoration of democracy because the welfare of the people of Pakistan lies in the stability of democracy,” Mrs. Bhutto said yesterday. She also said her party would file an appeal against yesterday’s decision.

Opponents argued before the court that Gen. Musharraf’s dual role as president and army chief is illegal. They also wanted the election postponed until next year, after a new parliament is elected.

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