Tuesday, September 18, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan’s Election Commission yesterday changed the country’s voting rules to open the way for President Pervez Musharraf to seek a new five-year term without giving up his powerful position of army chief.

Opposition parties decried the move as a violation of the constitution and accused the U.S.-allied leader of trying to bulldoze legal obstacles to his hold on power amid increasing demands for an end to military rule. They predicted a surge in democracy protests, which have already shaken the president’s hold on power.

The ruling was likely to end up before the Supreme Court, which has proved an impediment to Gen. Musharraf this year.

Gen. Musharraf seized power in 1999 after a decade of chaotic civilian rule and pledged to eradicate Islamic extremism and bring “real” democracy to Pakistan. But he has yet to say when he will heed opposition demands to give up his parallel post as army chief, the main source of his authority.

The five-member Election Commission, whose chairman was appointed by the president, said it changed a constitutional rule barring government employees — such as army officers — from running.

“The chief election commissioner of Pakistan has made the requisite amendment, with the approval of the president,” the panel said.

The move appeared to signal Gen. Musharraf’s determination to extend his rule and dimmed flickering hopes of a potential power-sharing deal between Gen. Musharraf and the moderate party of exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Mrs. Bhutto predicted that the change in the election rules would further enrage the lawyers who mounted a protest campaign this spring that successfully restored the Supreme Court chief judge to his post after Gen. Musharraf tried to fire him.

“All political parties, irrespective of whether they were moderates or religious, regional or national, came together to back the lawyers and their movement and I think the same would happen again,” she said late Sunday.

Mrs. Bhutto said her party might join other opposition groups in resigning from parliament, arguing that it would be “illegal” for Gen. Musharraf to seek re-election while still serving as military chief.

The president is elected by the provincial and national legislatures, in a vote set for Oct. 15.

The election fight could also deepen divisions within the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party. Gen. Musharraf has struggled to calm an intensified democracy campaign while dealing with the resurgence of Taliban and al Qaeda militants along with border with Afghanistan.

Mushahid Hussain, the ruling party’s secretary-general, predicted that Gen. Musharraf would step down as army chief shortly after winning parliamentary presidential vote.

“I expect him to be sworn in as a civilian president,” Mr. Hussain said. But, he added, “it’s my own personal view. I’m not in the government.”

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