updated 10/5/2007 7:16:12 PM ET 2007-10-05T23:16:12

Pakistan can go ahead with its presidential election, but the winner can’t be declared — at least not for a while, the country’s Supreme Court said Friday.

It said the results of Saturday’s ballot could not become official until it decided if Pervez Musharraf was eligible to stand for re-election while retaining his dual post as chief of the army.

The surprise decision cast Pakistan into political confusion by leaving open the possibility that the high court could still derail the U.S.-allied Musharraf’s bid for a new five-year term even if, as expected, he easily won the voting by national and provincial lawmakers.

That brought new doubts about his future and his pledges to end eight years of military rule, restore democracy and redouble efforts to fight surging Islamic militancy. And it rekindled speculation that Musharraf might resort to martial law to hold on to the presidency.

“Pakistan will be in a state of political limbo for quite some time,” analyst Talat Masood said.

Power-sharing negotiations continue
Musharraf, meanwhile, pressed on with his effort to negotiate a power-sharing deal with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He signed an amnesty to quash corruption charges against her.

The general, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has said he wants to stay on as president to continue policies that have turned around Pakistan’s economy despite the nation's position on the front line of the American-led war against terrorist groups.

But a botched attempt to fire the country’s chief justice in March rebounded badly, eroding his authority and popularity and setting up the Supreme Court as the biggest obstacle to his continued rule.

Musharraf’s opponents in the election contested his eligibility to be a presidential candidate while simultaneously retaining the post of army chief, claiming that was unconstitutional. They asked the Supreme Court to delay the vote while the issues are argued.

Presiding Justice Javed Iqbal announced Friday that the election could go ahead Saturday. But he said the official results could not be announced until after the court rules on the challenges.

Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said the ruling would not prevent the announcement of unofficial results after the vote.

Official: We will accept ruling
Iqbal said hearings would resume on Oct. 17, meaning that even if Musharraf received the most votes, as widely expected, he would have to wait at least 11 days before knowing whether he retained the presidency. His current presidential term expires Nov. 15.

Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim said the government “always accepted and respected court rulings, and we also accept today’s ruling.”

Still, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said government lawmakers were determined to re-elect Musharraf on Saturday and forecast that the election process would “proceed unhindered.”

A lawyer for retired justice Wajihuddin Ahmed, Musharraf’s chief presidential rival and one of those who filed a petition with the Supreme Court, acknowledged that the triumph was partial.

“We have achieved 60 percent victory,” Hamid Khan told The Associated Press outside the courtroom. “We are very hopeful that we will be successful in the Supreme Court.”

Uncertainty hangs over election
Musharraf has promised to quit the army — widely regarded in Pakistan as the real seat of political power — by Nov. 15 if he is re-elected as president.

However, the attorney general said on Geo television that Musharraf might continue as military chief if the court proceedings dragged on. Qayyum said he hoped a ruling would come within a week after hearings resume.

Adding to the uncertainty, the Election Commission declined to say what would happen if Musharraf won the vote and then was disqualified — whether a new election would be held or the second-place candidate would be considered the new president.

“This is a very sensitive matter. No comment,” commission secretary Kanwar Dilshad said.

Bhutto’s moderate Pakistan People’s Party also nominated a presidential candidate. But with a political deal with Musharraf appearing to be nearer, it was not clear whether Bhutto’s candidate would stay in the running.

Smaller opposition parties already quit Parliament, arguing their lack of participation would erode the legitimacy of the presidential election. Their departure meant Musharraf’s foes would be able to muster few votes.

Both Bhutto, Musharraf are pro-U.S.
Musharraf has been striving for months to reach a deal with Bhutto to create a strong political alliance of like-minded policies. Both Bhutto and Musharraf are pro-U.S. and have called for Pakistanis to unite against extremism.

The amnesty, the result of monthslong negotiations between Bhutto and Musharraf, appeared likely to head off her threat to join the opposition’s ballot boycott.

Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the president signed the National Reconciliation Ordinance, dropping corruption cases dating from between 1986 and 1999 pending against Bhutto and other former officials. The ordinance also amends electoral rules to prevent fraud during parliamentary elections due by January.

Hassan Ahmed Bukhari, a spokesman in London for Bhutto’s party, said it was waiting for formal notification of the amnesty but added it would help “create a better environment in the country.”

“We hope that this will pave the way for national reconciliation in the country,” he said

Bhutto, who plans to return from her self-exile Oct. 18, also wants a constitutional amendment to let her seek a third term as prime minister and a reduction of the president’s sweeping powers. Officials in her party said those issues could be resolved later.

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