ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will step down as army chief if he wins re-election, his lawyer said Tuesday, paving the way for power-sharing civilian rule after eight turbulent years.
The move, if carried through, would remove a key objection to Musharraf’s plans to seek a new five-year mandate in October and allow him to share power with former premier Benazir Bhutto ahead of her return from exile.
A key US ally in the “war on terror”, Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 but has faced mass street protests in the past six months since a botched bid to sack the country’s top judge.
“If elected for a second term as president, General Pervez Musharraf shall relinquish charge of the office of chief of army staff soon after elections and before taking the oath of president for the second term,” Sharfuddin Pirzada told the Supreme Court.
The lawyer, a close aide to Musharraf, was speaking during a hearing into legal challenges by the opposition against the Pakistani leader’s rule.
Musharraf is seeking re-election by the outgoing parliament in a vote that is due before October 15. If he wins he is expected to take the oath within a month, as the government says his current term expires on November 15.
“The time has come for Musharraf to shed his military uniform,” deputy information minister Tariq Azeem told AFP. “It is a matter of days and not weeks now.”
Musharraf, a former commando, had strongly resisted moves to make him quit the military, which is the main source of his power and whose loyalty in the fight against Al-Qaeda militants has kept Washington onside.
He joined up at the age of 18 and fought in two wars against rival India. Earlier this year he said his army uniform had become “part of my skin.”
But his military role became the major stumbling block in months of talks with fellow liberal Bhutto, and newspaper reports this week said that he would announce his intention to quit as part of a secretly-struck deal with her.
Bhutto, who has been living in Dubai and London since 1999 to avoid corruption charges in her homeland, announced on Friday that she intends to return to Pakistan on October 18, with or without a deal.
Political analyst Kamal Matinuddin, a former Pakistani ambassador, said that Musharraf had faced up to the inevitable.
“Musharraf knew he had to take this decision one day,” he said. “He could not prolong it (the dual role as president and army chief) without amending the constitution but he lacks the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament” to do so.
Pakistani authorities a week ago expelled another ex-premier, Nawaz Sharif, when he tried to fly home to challenge Musharraf, the man who ousted him eight years ago.
Yet Musharraf could still face trouble in even standing for election.
The Supreme Court is currently hearing petitions by the country’s leading fundamentalist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and an association of pro-democracy lawyers.
The appeals argue that Musharraf is not eligible to stand for another term as president, and that in any case there should be a general election before a presidential poll to reflect the changing political landscape.
General elections are due by early 2008.
There is also controversy after Pakistan’s Election Commission changed an electoral rule that previously forbade any officials — including army officers like Musharraf — from standing for election within two years of retiring.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party rejected Musharraf’s pledge to quit as army chief.
“We are challenging Musharraf’s eligibility as a candidate for president in uniform. He cannot file his nomination, he is not a valid candidate,” senior party member Raja Zafar ul-Haq, a former law minister, told AFP.