A tearful Pervez Musharraf ended a four-decade military career Wednesday, giving up his army commander’s ceremonial baton on the eve of taking an oath as the purely civilian president of Pakistan.
The United States, keen to promote democracy while keeping Pakistan focused on fighting Islamic extremism, praised Musharraf’s relaxation of his grip on power as a “strong first step” forward.
But it gave him no slack on the other key demand that he end a state of emergency that has enraged political rivals, strained his close ties with the West and cast doubt on the ability of opposition parties to campaign for parliamentary elections in January.
“We welcome Musharraf’s decision to shed the uniform,” said former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, leader of one of the two main opposition parties. “Now the Pakistani army has got a full-fledged chief and they can better perform their duties.”
But she said her party would “not take any decision in haste” on whether it could accept Musharraf as head of state.
Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister and opposition leader, again rejected Musharraf’s presidency, saying his presidential oath Thursday would have “no legitimacy.”
Faces political test
Musharraf’s belated retirement as chief of the military denies him the authority that has sustained him for the eight years since he seized power in a coup. He will likely retain great respect among the generals, but he will have to sharpen his political skills to stay in control.
He relinquished command Wednesday at army headquarters in Rawalpindi, a garrison city near the capital, Islamabad. He handed over his baton to his hand-picked successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, a career officer who analysts expect to show his independence from the president.
“This army is my life. This army is my passion,” Musharraf said, grimacing as an honor guard stood to attention in a field hockey stadium before hundreds of dignitaries, mostly military officers and their wives.
“From tomorrow, that relationship will always remain, but I will not be in uniform,” Musharraf added, sniffing and blinking back tears before taking his place alongside the taller, more relaxed Kayani.
Bush: Musharraf made 'strong first step'
Musharraf was making a long promised step as part of what he hoped would calm anger over emergency rule and smooth Pakistan’s transition toward democracy.
However, he secured a new five-year term as president only after using his authority over the army to decree a state of emergency Nov. 3, sweep away judges who might have stood in his way and silence most of his critics with arrests and a gag on the media.
In protest, some opposition parties are threatening to boycott the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections — a move that could wreck the hopes of Musharraf’s Western supporters for a stable, moderate government able to keep the pressure on militants aligned with al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Washington applies more pressure
President Bush said he appreciated that Musharraf kept his word by relinquishing his military post, calling it “strong first step” toward enhancing democracy in Pakistan.
“It is something that a lot of people doubted would ever happen,” Bush said in an interview with CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
But Bush added that “in order to get Pakistan back on the road to democracy, he’s got to suspend the emergency law before elections.”
“The most stabilizing thing will be for Pakistan to have free and fair elections,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier on ABC’s “Good Morning America” show. “It’s time for Pakistan to move in that direction.”
Critics decry Musharraf rule
Opposition parties say Musharraf cannot be trusted not to rig the elections to ensure that lawmakers do his bidding. They say his appointment of new judges means there are no independent courts to intervene if the ballot isn’t fair.
Musharraf first promised to quit the army at the end of 2004 but broke his word, saying the country needed his strong leadership. He told The Associated Press in an interview this month that his presence was vital to ensure stability.
Outgoing lawmakers re-elected Musharraf to a new five-year term in October. But the Supreme Court held up his confirmation following complaints that a military officer could not run for elected office under the constitution.
Under the emergency decree, the chief justice and other independent judges were put under house arrest and their pliant replacements approved Musharraf’s election victory last week.
Officials have indicated emergency rule might be lifted soon, but have not set a firm date.
Musharraf vouched for the abilities of Kayani, a former chief of Pakistan’s feared ISI intelligence agency, saying he had known him since he was a colonel.
Kayani, 55, a pro-Western officer, is expected to concentrate on Pakistan’s effort against violent extremists.
The army said Wednesday that its troops had killed about 220 followers of a pro-Taliban cleric in the northern Swat valley in a continuing offensive involving artillery and U.S.-supplied attack helicopters.
Kayani is well-placed to heal the rift that has opened between Musharraf and Pakistan’s civilian politicians. He served as Bhutto’s military secretary when she was prime minister in the late 1980s.
An uncertain future
Musharraf’s future is less clear.
After more than 40 years in the army, he now will have to jostle for power with Bhutto and Sharif. Both have registered as candidates in the elections, and say they will boycott the ballot only if the entire opposition agrees to — something considered highly unlikely.
Sharif, who returned from exile on Sunday, has taken a particularly hard line against Musharraf, who ousted him in the 1999 coup.
A conservative comfortable with Islamic parties, Sharif has been reaching out to the many voters who oppose Pakistan’s front-line role against the Taliban and al-Qaida, styling Musharraf as an American stooge.
“Musharraf taking oath as president tomorrow has no legitimacy,” Sharif said Wednesday after a party meeting. “He got the verdict in his favor from a court which is not acceptable to the nation.”
Sharif demanded that Musharraf make a “complete rollback” to the situation before emergency rule was imposed. “Unless the judiciary is restored ... no matter what action he takes, we cannot compromise,” Sharif said.
Emergency rule has also strained Musharraf’s relations with Bhutto, who shares his secularist, pro-Western views and has left the door ajar for cooperation.
Musharraf has relaxed some aspects of the crackdown. Thousands of opponents have been released and all but one news channel is back on the air.
However, he has refused to reverse his purge of the judiciary, an act that pitted him against Pakistan’s well-organized legal fraternity.
On Wednesday, about 400 lawyers staged a protest about 2 miles from army headquarters, shouting “We want freedom!” and “Hang Musharraf!”
“He should be thrown out,” said Sardar Asmatullah, a lawyers association leader. “He has been a dictator for the last eight years and he has delivered nothing good for this country.”