ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf plans to quit as army chief to become a civilian leader, removing a key objection to his proposed re-election in October, a senior ruling party official said on Monday.
“We expect that after his re-election process next month, God willing, General Musharraf would take his oath of office as a civilian president before November 15,” Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, secretary-general of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML), told Reuters.
U.S. ally Musharraf has held the post of army chief since he seized power in a military coup in 1999, despite calls from the opposition to quit the dual office.
His acquiescence could be seen as a victory for Benazir Bhutto, who has said that any power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf will depend, among other things, on him becoming a civilian president.
Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party announced on Friday the two-time former prime minister will return to Pakistan on October 18, ending more than eight years of self-exile.
Giving up the army role would undoubtedly dilute Musharraf’s power in a country that that has been ruled by generals for more than half the 60 years since it was founded.
It will also be a wrench for a life-long soldier who described his uniform as a “second skin,” but aides say Musharraf has been reconciled to quitting the army for months.
Senator Sayed said that Musharraf would abide by the constitution and quit the army before the end of 2007. Musharraf’s current term as president expires on November 15.
“Yes, I have no doubt that the president will keep his commitment,” said Sayed, who recently met Musharraf.
“He is clear on this issue.”
The United States is keenly watching the fate of Musharraf, as instability in a nuclear-armed state where al Qaeda militants are based and Taliban insurgents are fighting Western forces in Afghanistan could have far reaching consequences.
Neighboring India is also monitoring events in Pakistan, with a peace process between the two rivals still to yield substantial results after more than 3 years.
Before quitting the army, Musharraf plans to seek another five-year term as president from the sitting parliament by October 15, Sayed said. A general election is due by around the year-end.
The PML and its allies have a majority in parliament, but several members of the ruling coalition have reservations over his re-election while still in uniform.
An alliance of opposition parties has also threatened to resign from parliament if Musharraf went ahead with his plans. A walk-out would not affect the election but it would dent its credibility.
Bhutto’s PPP is not part of the opposition alliance, whose main member is a Pakistan Muslim League faction led by Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted in 1999 and last week dispatched to Saudi Arabia after he tried to return from exile.
However, the most significant threat to Musharraf’s re-election plans 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 is taking up a number of legal challenges thrown up by opposition parties and lawyers’ bodies against Musharraf’s bid for re-election and keeping the dual offices of the president and army chief.
If the court succeeds in blocking Musharraf’s re-election he might resort to dissolving the assemblies and seeking a mandate from the parliament returned by the general election, or more drastically, he might opt for emergency rule or martial law.