Pakistan Court Weighs Musharraf Re-Election Bid

Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf got in political trouble this year by challenging his country's Supreme Court. Now that court is hearing petitions asking that Musharraf, a key U.S. ally against al-Qaida, be disqualified from running for re-election.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Pakistan's president got in political trouble this year by challenging his country's Supreme Court. Now that court is the forum where Pakistanis are challenging him.

General Pervez Musharraf is a critical U.S. ally against al-Qaida. But a presidential election is approaching, and Pakistan's highest court has begun hearing petitions asking that Musharraf be disqualified from running.

NPR's Philip Reeves was at the court.

(Soundbite of cars)

PHILIP REEVES: One by one, they pull up - sleek new cars carrying black-clad lawyers with armfuls of papers. They've come here to Pakistan's Supreme Court to grapple over the future of their military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf.

(Soundbite of protesters)

REEVES: These people have also come - angry-eyed men in baggy white clothes with beards and banners. They're from Pakistan's largest religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, led by Qazi Hussain Ahmad.

Mr. QAZI HUSSAIN AHMAD (Jamaat-e-Islami): This is the most important case which has been in the history of Pakistan honored by the Supreme Court.

REEVES: Qazi's party has filed one of a handful of petitions which a panel of nine judges will examine. These urge the judges to rule it illegal for Musharraf to stand for reelection as president - a view which Qazi obviously supports.

Mr. AHMAD: The Supreme Court should decide that the constitution is supreme and the armed forces will be told that they must abide by the constitution.

REEVES: Within the next few weeks, Musharraf will seek reelection from Pakistan's national and provincial parliaments, even though their terms are about to expire.

He faces two basic legal challenges. The first is over whether he can be president while remaining army chief. It's not entirely clear whether Musharraf actually intends to stay in uniform. One of his political allies said today he thought Musharraf will be sworn in as a civilian president in November. The second is about whether Musharraf can stand as president at all, even if he resigns from the military. The constitution says government servants must wait two years after retirement before running for office.

Pressure on Musharraf is building from many directions.

Mr. RAJA ZAFARUL HAQ (Opposition Spokesman): All blockade his election as president of Pakistan.

REEVES: That's Raja Zafarul Haq, spokesman for an alliance of opposition parties.

Mr. HAQ: Because he is not eligible to be elected. And the present assemblies are not eligible to elect anybody like him.

REEVES: Members of the alliance say they'll resign on masse from Pakistan's parliaments on the day the election commission accepts Musharraf's nomination.

But the general's political enemies are divided. Last week, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was sent humiliatingly back into exile in Saudi Arabia after attempting to return home. The Saudis said he had agreed with them to stay out of Pakistan for three more years. And Benazir Bhutto, who's flying home next month, may yet do a power sharing deal with Musharraf.

Musharraf's biggest worry is not the politicians; it's the Supreme Court. Behind the court stands Pakistan's entire legal community, civil society activists, and the media. Most of them seem confident Musharraf's candidacy for the president will be ruled illegal, yet no one here is sure how this crisis will play out. Many worry that if the Supreme Court goes against him, Musharraf may opt for emergency or martial law.

The crowd outside the court today was clear about what it wants.

(Soundbite of protesters)

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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Pakistan Election Change Could Favor Musharraf

Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf speaks in Kabul on Aug. 12.

Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf speaks on Aug. 12 at the Pakistan-Afghanistan Peace Jirga in Kabul. A change in election rules on Monday appears to clear the way for him to seek a new term as president. Presidential Palace/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Presidential Palace/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan's Election Commission appears to have cleared the way for President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to seek another term while serving as army chief, even as legal challenges mount.

The commission announced a rule change Monday to a key article of the constitution that would allow Musharraf to seek reelection to the presidenc while continuing to hold his post as army chief.

That article includes a prohibition against government servants running for election that some legal experts argue prevents Musharraf, who heads the army, from seeking another term. It also specifies that former government servants must wait for two years before they become eligible to run. Some argue that makes Musharraf ineligible even if he quits as army chief.

The commission said it was updating its rules to reflect Supreme Court rulings in 2002 and 2005 that Article 63 of the constitution did not apply to Musharraf.

"The chief election commissioner of Pakistan has made the requisite amendment, with the approval of the president," the commission said in a statement.

Several court challenges could render the Election Commission's actions moot.

On Monday, the Supreme Court resumed hearing six petitions, including one by Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest Islamist group, on Musharraf's eligibility to stand again. The court's decision could override the actions of the Election Commission.

Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said that, with the cases pending in court, the Election Commission was reluctant to announce the schedule for the presidential election. Ruling party lawmakers have said it will be held in early October.

Meanwhile, the Election Commission's rule change drew an outraged response from opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. She also accused Musharraf's allies of leading the country toward a dangerous crisis by refusing to restore democracy and share power.

Bhutto has been in talks with Musharraf on a pact including constitutional amendments to defuse the legal challenges to his re-election and let her return and seek a third term as premier in parliamentary elections due by January.

Monday's announcement by the election commission, however, seemed to remove the need for such a pact.

Bhutto predicted the decision would enrage the same lawyers who led the campaign for the restoration of Pakistan's independent-minded top judge whom Musharraf tried to remove from office in March, sparking a pro-democracy protest movement. The Supreme Court later reinstated the judge.

"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," Bhutto told The Associated Press late Sunday, when Pakistani media first reported the rule change.

She said her party may join other opposition groups in resigning from parliament. She said that for Musharraf to seek re-election in uniform would be "illegal."

Pakistan's political turmoil is deepening as Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, tries to extend his rule. He wants lawmakers to vote him back in by mid-October, but faces tough legal and political obstacles.

Musharraf's term expires Nov. 15. The president, who became a key U.S. ally after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is elected in a vote by all members of Pakistan's provincial and national assemblies.

Musharraf's standing has plummeted since March, and he is also struggling to contain a surge in attacks by pro-Taliban militants near the border with Afghanistan.

Last week, he sidelined his chief political rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, sending him back into exile. But in doing that, he set up another showdown with the Supreme Court that had earlier ruled that Sharif could return to Pakistan.

Information Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani said the government was not involved in the rule change. He defended the Election Commission's announcement, saying it had only amended the election rules in accordance with court rulings.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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