Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf will give up his post of army chief if he is re-elected president and will be sworn in for a new term as a civilian, his lawyer told the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The promise to stand down as army chief removes a major objection to Musharraf’s proposed re-election by October 15, but legal challenges abound.
U.S. ally Musharraf retained his army post after he seized power in a 1999 coup despite opposition calls to quit.
“If elected for a second term as president, General Pervez Musharraf shall relinquish charge of office of chief of army staff soon after election and before taking oath of office as president,” Musharraf’s chief lawyer, Sharifuddin Pirzada, told the Supreme Court during a hearing into challenges against Musharraf’s rule.
The date of a presidential election is expected to be announced this week. Parliamentary elections are due by mid-January.
Giving up the army role would undoubtedly dilute Musharraf’s power in a country that has been ruled by generals for more than half the 60 years since it was founded.
But it could help him cement a power-sharing agreement with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto that could enable him to overcome growing opposition to his continued rule.
Bhutto has said that any arrangement with Musharraf would depend, among other things, on him becoming a civilian president.
Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, secretary-general of Musharraf’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML), told Reuters on Monday Musharraf would abide by the constitution and quit the army before the end of 2007.
He was expected to take his oath of office as a civilian president before November 15, when his current term expires, Sayed said.
The United States is keenly watching the fate of Musharraf, as instability in a nuclear-armed state where al Qaeda militants are based and from where Taliban insurgents are fighting Western forces in Afghanistan could have far-reaching consequences.
Nuclear-armed neighbor India is also monitoring events in Pakistan, with a peace process between the rivals yet to yield substantial results after more than 3 years.
Musharraf’s popularity has slumped since he tried to sack the Supreme Court’s top judge in March, inadvertently whipping up a campaign by lawyers and the opposition against him.
According to a survey issued this week by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI) 62 percent of Pakistanis thought Musharraf should quit as army chief while 64 percent opposed his re-election as president.
The survey, made three months ago, found that 78 percent of people believed exiled leaders such as former prime ministers Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, should be allowed to take part in the next general election. Sharif was deported last week, hours after he tried to come back to lead a campaign against Musharraf.
IRI also found that 44 percent of people would support a Musharraf-Bhutto deal if he quit the army, got re-elected by the sitting assemblies and Bhutto returned before general elections.
The most significant threat to Musharraf’s re-election plan could come from a Supreme Court regarded as hostile after the general’s ill-fated attempt to fire the chief justice.
On Monday, the court took up six challenges from Musharraf’s opponents against his bid for re-election and against his keeping the two offices of president and army chief.
At the same time, the Election Commission changed an election rule that will help Musharraf overcome an obstacle to his re-election after stepping down as army chief.
The Commission said a constitutional requirement for retiring state servants to wait two years before running for office did not apply to presidential candidates.
If the court blocks Musharraf’s re-election he might dissolve the assemblies and seek a mandate from the parliament returned by a general election, or more drastically, he might opt for emergency rule or martial law, analysts say.