Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said on Thursday a state of emergency he imposed on Nov. 3 would be lifted on Dec. 16.
Musharraf, in an address to the nation after he was sworn in for a new five-year term as a civilian president, also said the constitution would be restored.
Emergency rule is being lifted just over three weeks before a general election due to be held on Jan. 8.
Musharraf embarked on a new, five-year term as a civilian president Thursday, a day after ceding the powerful post of army chief — the basis of his rule for the past eight years.
In his inaugural address, Musharraf welcomed the return from exile of his old foes, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, saying it was “good” for political reconciliation.
“I only hope that they will ... move forward toward a conciliatory, civilized, democratic and political environment in the future,” Musharraf said.
However, neither was present at the ceremony in the state palace in Islamabad, and it remained unclear whether the changeover would defuse the threat of a boycott of upcoming parliamentary elections. Such a move would undercut Musharraf’s effort to legitimize his rule through a democratic ballot.
“This is a milestone in the transition of Pakistan to the complete essence of democracy,” Musharraf told an audience of government officials, foreign diplomats and military generals. “Elections will be held in January come whatever may.”
On Wednesday, a tearful Musharraf ended a four-decade military career as part of his long-delayed pledge not to serve as both president and army chief.
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 “good 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 the parliamentary elections.
“We welcome Musharraf’s decision to shed the uniform,” Bhutto said Wednesday. “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.
Sharif again rejected Musharraf’s presidency, saying his presidential oath would have “no legitimacy.”
Musharraf was the Pakistani army’s commander-in-chief when he seized power from Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999. He had retained the post for the past eight years.
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 the 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.
Musharraf reacted by proclaiming a state of emergency on Nov. 3, sacking the chief justice and other independent judges and replacing them with his appointees. The reconstituted top court then duly approved his election.
Musharraf on Thursday again sought to justify his imposition of emergency rule. He gave no indication of when the emergency would be lifted — a key demand of both his domestic rivals and international backers, including the United States.
“It is most unfortunate that some elements of the judiciary, the ex-chief justice, tried to derail this stage of democratic transition ... and this conspiracy was impacting negatively on the functioning of justice and the sovereignty of parliament,” Musharraf said.
'In the interests of Pakistan'
“I had to act and I acted in the interests of Pakistan,” he said.
On Wednesday, 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.”
After more than 40 years in the army, Musharraf 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. 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.
Emergency rule also has 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 Thursday, violent clashes broke out in the eastern city of Lahore between police and lawyers protesting against Musharraf’s rule.
Demonstrators threw bricks, glasses and sticks at police who blocked the path of about 400 lawyers as they tried to march from one court complex to another, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
Some police officers threw the items back at the lawyers, who were chanting slogans including “Go, Musharraf, go!” and “Friends of Musharraf are traitors!”
Four lawyers and three policemen were injured, said Zahid Abbas, a police official, who himself was bleeding from a wound to a hand caused by a flying stone. At least two lawyers were detained.