Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Roiled Pakistan Prepares for Vote

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Roiled Pakistan Prepares for Vote

Article excerpt

This past weekend, Constitution Avenue, the major boulevard running through Islamabad, became a battleground for competing visions of Pakistan's future.

Inside the corridors of power that line this wide thoroughfare, President Pervez Musharraf's bid to seek reelection in this week's presidential poll gained momentum with a favorable court ruling and the approval of the national Election Commission.

Outside, however, in a haze of tear gas and a hail of rocks, lawyers, journalists, and political opponents demonstrated against Musharraf, battling security forces.

Legal room remains for opponents to appeal the ruling before the Oct. 6 election. Yet this weekend's events suggest that Pakistan's notes of political chaos, in crescendo for six months, are unlikely to diminish even if Musharraf wins a measure of legal legitimacy.

"I don't think Musharraf has sealed his next five years," says Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based analyst for the Henry L. Stimpson Institute in Washington. "I'm not sure he'll be able to consolidate his control even after he wins the election."

The court ruling, it had been hoped, would be decisive and historic: deciding once and for all whether Musharraf could run for president as Army chief. In a country that has known military rulers for half of its existence, the case had the potential "to begin of redefine the civil-military power relationship in the country," says Hassan Askari Rizvi, a former professor at Columbia University in New York.

Instead, the court essentially punted, dismissing the petitions against Musharraf on technical grounds - saying that the way the petitions were filed was incorrect. It left the core constitutional questions unanswered.

"It seems like a cop-out," says Shafqat Mahmood, a columnist for The News, a daily newspaper in Pakistan, who notes that the court is under enormous pressure from both sides. "It left both sides less than satisfied."

Court's challenge of authority

The verdict came as a surprise to some. Musharraf has faced growing scrutiny since he unsuccessfully attempted to sack the chief justice of the Supreme Court six months ago, and the court has played a primary role in challenging his authority. For "the first time in history, we were seeing a judiciary giving one antimilitary judgment after another," says Professor Rizvi.

But the ruling highlights the difficulties of funneling a popular uprising through the courts, which are given to the interpretation of law, not popular opinion. Lawyers from the nation's Bar Association - who have led the six-month campaign against Musharraf - have promised to appeal.

If those attempts fail, however, attention will shift to Pakistan's political parties, which, in many ways, are better suited to be the instrument of the public. Already, the president's political opponents are planning strikes, and some parties have announced mass resignations from the legislature, hoping that a political meltdown will stall the presidential vote. …

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