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Musharraf Praises 'New Era of Democracy' for Pakistan

Pakistan's president says his country, is ushering in a new era of democracy following years of his autocratic rule. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Islamabad that Pervez Musharraf, in his Pakistan Day address, also credited his regime with paving the way for the return to civilian government.

Members of the armed forces - from the mechanized infantry to nurses - paraded past President Pervez Musharraf and other dignitaries, while fighter jets screeched by overhead, as the country celebrated Pakistan Day.

The unpopular president, who came to power in a 1999 military coup, appeared in civilian clothing after yielding to pressure last November to give up the powerful post as Army chief.

In his address at the national stadium in the capital Sunday, Mr. Musharraf hailed a "new real era of democracy" for Pakistan.

While making reference to the incoming civilian government resulting from democratic elections he permitted this year, the president also defended his nine years of strong-armed rule as a journey "toward democracy and development."

It is uncertain whether this president will ever again preside over such a ceremony. The caretaker government he appointed is in its last hours. Mr. Musharraf will swear-in a democratically-elected prime minister on Tuesday replacing the figurehead he had appointed.

The new prime minister is certain to be Yousuf Raza Gilani of the Pakistan People's Party, or PPP. Gilani on Sunday was asked by reporters whether he is certain to serve a full five-year term. He responded, "We are not here to count how many days we have remaining in the Assembly. People are not concerned whether we are here completing five years or not completing. They are only concerned whether we have delivered to the nation or not."

Pakistan has a history of military coups and of presidents dismissing prime ministers. Gilani already faces the perception that he will serve at the whim of party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Speculation is intense here that Zardari seeks to install himself as prime minister, perhaps within a matter of months.

The Pakistan Peoples Party has agreed to a coalition government with a long-time rival, the Muslim League faction of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. During the campaign both parties expressed opposition to the president's autocratic rule. Many members of the new coalition want Mr. Musharraf to exit quickly as head of state, either by resignation or through impeachment.

Another showdown is looming between legislators and the president. The PPP and Mr. Sharif's party have agreed to reinstate the top layer of the country's judiciary which Mr. Musharraf removed last year.

The embattled head of state on Sunday also called on the new government to maintain peace and socio-economic development. The president added that he hopes Pakistan's civilian leaders will continue the struggle with the same force that he has applied against terrorism and extremism.

Mr. Musharraf has been Washington's staunch ally in the U.S.-led international war against terrorism. It is unclear whether the democratically-elected government leaders will have the same stance or take a different approach to the security threats facing the country.

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