In his first press conference since he declared a state of emergency early this month, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Sunday set a date for general elections, saying the polls would be held no later than Jan. 9. The national and state assemblies would be dissolved on Nov. 20, he said, and caretaker administrations would govern the country until after the elections. Meanwhile, he stated his intent to remain a powerful president who would be "absolutely aboveboard and neutral" during the campaigning and voting.
Musharraf reiterated that he would resign from his powerful position as chief of army staff when he takes the oath of office for another five-year presidential term, probably later this month. Pakistan's Supreme Court, which is packed with pro-Musharraf judges, rules that he was legally reelected president in a controversial, indirect vote last October. "I shall take the oath of office as a civilian president as soon as possible," he said. In fixing an election date and promising to take off his uniform, both key demands of the United States other allied governments and of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, he was clearly making an attempt to defuse the heavy domestic and international criticism of his emergency decree and to reestablish some credibility. "This sets aside the aspersions, distortions and rumors [of people] doubting my intensions," he said.
Sounding resolute and tough, he firmly said he had no regrets for taking the hard line that made him increasingly unpopular at home and abroad. "I did right," said Musharraf, dressed in mufti, sporting an expensive blue suit, light blue shirt and dark tie. Declaring the emergency, which is akin to martial law, "was the most difficult decision I have ever taken in my life," he added. "It was indeed a bitter pill to swallow."
No matter how badly it tasted, Musharraf made it clear that he was not going to lift the decree anytime soon, making it clear that emergency rule would remain in place at least through the election. "There is no time limit on that," he said of the emergency. "Certainly the emergency is required to ensure peace and an environment conducive to elections in Pakistan."
Musharraf brushed away questions about how a free and fair democratic election can be held while his emergency decree has suspended constitutional guarantees, an independent judiciary and freedom of assembly. He pledged that most, if not all, of political detainees who number into the thousands and include key opposition politicians, organizers and activists, would be freed by polling time. "I expect all of them will get released and will be able to go into electioneering," he said. When asked how an election could be held under martial-law-like conditions, Musharraf's Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan said that past Pakistani elections have taken place in Pakistan during emergencies, for example, in 1971. The playing field will be level for all political parties Khan claimed. "The [emergency] rules apply equally, fairly with everyone who agrees to take part."
Such talk did not reassure a beleaguered and downtrodden opposition. It also raised the question whether anti-Musharraf parties would even bother to contest the election under the emergency decree. Ahsan Iqbal, the spokesman of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's party, said elections held under the emergency would be "fraudulent" as long as "thousands of opposition workers and leaders" are in jail and Sharif remains in exile in Saudi Arabia. Sherry Rehman, Bhutto's information secretary, complained that in the past few days "several thousand members" of her Pakistan People's Party have been arrested, and that 13 PPP women members of parliament were being held in prison under "utterly unhygienic" conditions and "spending torturous nights on ice-cold floors."
Musharraf keeps insisting that his emergency powers are necessary to prevent the country from "falling into turmoil." He said that before he acted, Pakistan was in a "state of paralysis, turmoil, shock and confusion," forcing him to take "a drastic measure to save the democratic process." As he did last Monday, when defending the emergency decree to some 80 foreign envoys in Islamabad, he once again attacked deposed and increasingly popular Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, blaming him for the country's ills. He claimed that "one individual in the judiciary" had "paralyzed" the government, "demoralized and shattered" law enforcement, and "encouraged" terrorists who "are gaining ground because of this whole state of confusion and turmoil." He even suggested Chaudhry is responsible for the country's recent economic downturn.
Musharraf ruled out any reconciliation with, or reinstatement of, the chief justice, which is an opposition demand, or any of the other Supreme Court and other high court justice who refused to approve the emergency, which they called unconstitutional. "They are no more judges," he said sharply. Most Pakistanis believe the chief reason for Musharraf's move was not instability or terrorism but simply to preempt the court from ruling that he was ineligible to get reelected to a second term while serving as army chief.
He took a sharp shot at Bhutto as well, questioning her popularity. "You think she is the next prime minister of Pakistan?" he asked. He then urged journalists to go into the cities and rural areas of populous Punjab state to determine her popularity. He also seemed to dismiss any talk of negotiations with Bhutto on any power-sharing deal. "There's no point in a personality getting in touch with me," he said. Bhutto, too, seems to be moving away from her one-time conciliatory stance toward Musharraf that won her an amnesty from a slew of corruption charges last September. After being released from one day's house arrest last Friday, she attempted to meet the chief justice yesterday but was stopped at the police barricade on the road leading to his house where he and his family are being held under house arrest. Speaking into a megaphone at the barrier she said Chaudhry is "the real" chief justice of Pakistan, and "we demand that all detained judges of the Supreme Court should be released." Later that evening she told a gathering of foreign diplomats inside Parliament that Musharraf's emergency had made the country even more unstable. "Pakistan under dictatorship is a pressure cooker," she said. "Without a place to vent, the passion of our people for liberty threatens to explode."
She will test the Musharraf's will and the people's passion next week as she has vowed to lead a "long march," or slow motorcade, from Lahore to Islamabad, a journey of nearly 300 miles. Today she traveled to Lahore to prepare for the protest march, but she is likely to find the same fate she met last Friday, having her house surrounded by police and barbed wire to keep her from venturing out. Even if she is allowed to move around the city, the main road to Islamabad will certainly be blocked.
Musharraf is playing his cards cautiously, keeping the emergency intact for the foreseeable future, including the monthlong campaigning period and during the voting. But he is taking one risk. If he does resign from the army just before taking the presidential oath, he is expected to lose much of his political clout that flows from his army command. But he seems confident the army will stay behind him. "Even if I'm not in uniform anymore, let me assure you the army will be with me," he in an aside soon after the press conference. That may be true but once Musharraf is out of uniform he will be stepping into unknown territory.