Election officials have set Oct. 6 for Pakistan’s presidential vote, as opponents of the president, Gen. Perez Musharraf, continued to press their case before a Supreme Court panel that he should not run for re-election while still head of the army.
The election has become the focus of the deepest political crisis Musharraf has faced. Opposition parties have threatened to boycott the vote to deny it legitimacy and there is no sign they will field candidates of their own.
Two exiled prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, have mounted popular campaigns to return and restore civilian rule. Sharif returned briefly to Islamabad last week, but was deported within hours to Saudi Arabia, where he had been exiled after General Musharraf ousted him in a coup in 1999. Bhutto has announced her return for Oct. 18.
A ruling from the nine-judge Supreme Court panel on whether Musharraf should be disqualified is likely next week, possibly on Wednesday, said Dr. Tariq Hassan, an opposition lawyer.
Lawyers for the opposition said Thursday they were preparing for the worst.
“What I anticipate is that, after giving certain observations, they will not allow our petition,” said one, Shaukad Saddiqui. He said he expects that the panel, which does not include four of the Supreme Court’s justices, will then leave it to the country’s chief elections official to determine if Musharraf can run for re-election.
That official, Qazi Farooq, was appointed by Musharraf and has ruled in his favor before.
A statement introduced in the Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday said that Musharraf would give up his military post if he won re-election. His current term runs out on Nov. 15, and by law presidential elections must be held by Oct. 15. The constitutional amendment allowing him to hold the top civilian and military posts expires Dec. 31. The information minister, Muhammad Ali Durrani, said that if re-elected, Musharraf would resign from his army post prior to Nov. 15, before taking the presidential oath.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has called that announcement “a clear reflection of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s firm belief in democracy.”
But the statement was immediately met with criticism and skepticism by opposition lawyers and political parties, who questioned whether the general would hold to such promises and what he would do if not re-elected.
The judicial panel hearing the opposition petitions is being led by Justice Rana Bhagwandas. The chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, chose not to serve on the panel. He was reinstated by the Supreme Court in July after fending off an attempt by Musharraf to dismiss him.
Political analysts said it was understandable that the opposition parties were critical of Musharraf’s announced plans for the election, but that it could be seen as Musharraf’s willingness — no matter how reluctant — to give up some of his power.