Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Thursday accused his political opponents of “threatening” democracy as he explained to the nation his decision to renege on a promise to step down as army chief by the end of 2004.
In an uncompromising nationwide televised address, Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S. war on terror, insisted he must continue to hold the post of army chief of staff — the source of most of his power — as well as that of president to ensure continuity.
Opposition groups have been sharply critical of the move. Nevertheless, Parliament passed a law this month allowing him to stay on in both posts through 2007.
“I have decided to retain both offices. In my view, any change in internal or external policies can be extremely dangerous for Pakistan,” he said.
He accused the opposition of “threatening the democratic process” by trying to make political capital from the issue.
President had promised explanation
Musharraf stressed the need for continuity in pursuing peace with nuclear-armed archrival India and fighting terrorism — which has angered hardliners in Pakistan.
Earlier this month, the general had promised to explain to the public his decision to continue on in both posts. Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup against an elected government in October 1999. He held parliamentary elections in 2002 but remains the dominant force in Pakistan. Musharraf said the country had been on the brink of becoming a “failed state” before he took power.
In December 2003, Musharraf agreed in a deal with a hardline Islamic opposition coalition to stand down as army chief by Dec. 31, 2004, in return for their support in a parliamentary vote to give him sweeping, constitutional powers to dismiss Parliament and the prime minister.
He won the vote, but Musharraf later accused that coalition, the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Forum, of breaking the deal to give him political support.
The president said earlier this month he would stay on as army chief, having secured a parliamentary vote in November to support the move.
In his address, Musharraf said the constitution allowed him to retain both offices until 2007, when fresh parliamentary elections are due.
‘Accept the voice of the majority’
“I shall never violate the constitution,” he said. “The National Assembly and the Senate have passed that bill that I shall keep the two offices. This is the voice of the majority and the minority should accept the voice of the majority.”
Opposition parties have accused Musharraf of acting like a dictator. The MMA has organized some major protest rallies, but with little impact on the wider public.
“He (Musharraf) is himself the minority,” said Raza Rabbani, a member of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s opposition Pakistan People’s Party. “If he is so popular and powerful, then why is he shy of relinquishing his army post?”
Mian Asalm, an MMA leader, said the organization would go ahead with its planned protests against Musharraf.
Musharraf has faced little criticism from the West for his backtracking on democracy in a country which has spent nearly half its history under military rule. Musharraf is viewed by the United States, former colonial power Britain and other nations as a valuable ally in combating Islamic extremism and fighting al-Qaida.
But he also said Pakistan would continue to “strengthen” its nuclear and missile capability.