RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (AP) – Pervez Musharraf stepped down from his powerful post as Pakistan’s military commander Wednesday, a day before he was to be sworn in as a civilian president as part of his long-delayed pledge not to hold both jobs.
During a change of command in the garrison town of Rawalpindi near the capital, Islamabad, an emotional Musharraf relinquished his post by handing over his ceremonial baton to his successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. “(You) are the saviors of Pakistan,” Musharraf said in a final speech to the troops, sniffing repeatedly and appearing to blink back tears.
Musharraf’s retirement from the military has been a key opposition demand, and may help defuse a possible boycott of parliamentary elections in January by parties opposed to his rule. Since seizing power in a 1999 coup, Musharraf has served as president while retaining his post as head of the armed forces. His ending of his more than 40 years in the army casts him into uncertain waters, with rivals snapping at his heels and the militants he has sworn to fight, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, contesting ever more of his country’s territory along the Afghan border.
Musharraf had promised to give up his army role at the end of 2004. But he reneged on that pledge, saying the country still needed strong leadership in the face of Islamic extremism. He has given it up now, in line with the constitution, only after securing a fresh term as president. He was re-elected by Parliament in October, but the Supreme Court held up his confirmation following complaints that a military man could not constitutionally serve as an elected head of state.
Musharraf reacted by proclaiming a state of emergency on Nov. 3, firing the chief justice and other independent judges and replacing them with his appointees. The reconstituted top court then approved his election. Officials have indicated that the emergency could be lifted soon after Musharraf takes the presidential oath, but have not set a firm date. The hour-long ceremony was held on a field hockey ground next to the military headquarters. Hundreds of senior officers, politicians and other civilians watched from the stands as an unsmiling Musharraf, wearing a phalanx of medals and a green sash across his uniform, reviewed the ranks to the strains of “Auld Lang Syne.”
“I’m proud of this army and I was lucky to have commanded the world’s best army,” Musharraf said. “I will no longer command … but my heart and my mind will always be with you.”
Kayani is widely expected to maintain the army’s pro-Western policies.
Musharraf insists he must continue as president to keep Pakistan stable as it returns to democracy. But he will have to jostle for power with Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, two former prime ministers just returned from exile and itching to return to office.
Both are threatening to boycott the vote, though they have also registered as candidates and say they will only shun the elections if the entire opposition unites behind that drastic step.
Sharif, who arrived from Saudi Arabia on Sunday, has taken a hard line against Musharraf, who ousted Sharif’s second government in the 1999 coup.
A conservative with good relations with Pakistan’s religious parties, Sharif is reaching out to the many Pakistanis who oppose Musharraf’s close alliance with the United States. “Musharraf hasn’t taken off his uniform under his own will, rather under pressure from the powers who installed him and kept him in power eight long years,” Sharif spokesman Pervez Rasheed said in an apparent reference to the United States. “Now the era of his unconstitutional and illegitimate acts will come to an end as the forces (who backed him) apparently withdrew their support,” Rasheed said.
Musharraf’s declaration of emergency rule has also strained relations with Bhutto, who shares his secularist, pro-Western views.
Bhutto, who has twice been put under house arrest to stop her from leading protests, has joined Sharif in denouncing Musharraf’s backsliding on democracy.
Mian Raza Rabbani, a senior leader of Bhutto’s party, said Musharraf’s quitting the army was “too little, too late.” “Now the political forces and civil society are moving in a different direction, to change the country along purely democratic lines,” he said. “Doffing his uniform will in no way help him to consolidate his rule.”
Musharraf has relaxed some aspects of the crackdown on dissent launched with emergency rule on Nov. 3. Thousands of opponents have been released and all but one independent news channel is back on the air.
However, he has refused to reverse his purge of the judiciary, an act that deepened the animosity toward him from Pakistan’s legal fraternity. The justices swept from the Supreme Court remain under house arrest. On Wednesday, about 400 lawyers staged a protest about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the army headquarters, shouting slogans including “We want freedom!” and “Hang Musharraf!” “He should be thrown out,” said Sardar Asmatullah, a leader of the city’s lawyers’ association. “He has been a dictator for the last eight years and he has delivered nothing good for this country.”