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Pakistani Court Dismisses Final Challenge to Musharraf Re-Election


Pakistan's newly appointed Supreme Court has dismissed the final legal challenge to President Pervez Musharraf's re-election victory, clearing the way for him to step down as army chief in the coming days. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad that political analysts say many Pakistanis will welcome the restoration of a civilian presidency, but there are larger unresolved issues in the political crisis.

The widely expected decision by General Musharraf's hand-picked court clears all legal challenges to his October re-election victory.

Pakistan's attorney general, an ally of General Musharraf, said once the court allows the election commission to certify his victory, the president could step down as army chief as early as Saturday.

General Musharraf has headed Pakistan's government and military ever since he relied on the armed forces to seize power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

Political analyst Shafqat Mahmood says the creation of a purely civilian president would be a significant development.

"The significance of his taking off the uniform is that he loses the command of the army which is the most powerful institution in the country," Mahmood said. "If the chips are really down as they have been for some time - he may not be able to command the same support in the armed forces as he has so far been able to do."

Pakistan's security forces continue to enforce strict emergency laws used to round up thousands of political activists and protesting lawyers and prevent mass demonstrations against the suspension of the constitution.

Authorities have released hundreds of prisoners in recent days, including some top opposition leaders such as former cricket star Imran Khan, but many remain in jail.

Political analyst Ayaz Amir says Pakistani opposition groups are now deciding whether they will participate in the country's upcoming polls.

"The crisis that Pakistan is in has now entered another phase: the election set for January 8," Amir said. "And what really now has to be seen is: will the political parties participate in them - and if they do, they will lend credibility and some measure of respect to what General Musharraf has done."

Boycotting the polls risks leaving the opposition parties unrepresented in a new government and strengthening President Musharraf's political allies. But by campaigning on General Musharraf's deep unpopularity, opposition parties could become a significant political force.

Shafqat Mahmood says the stakes in the election are high, because with a two-thirds majority, parliament can officially exonerate or prosecute General Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule.

"That is why many observers are saying that free and fair elections are very doubtful because he cannot get the two-thirds majority otherwise," Mahmood said.

President Musharraf has pledged the elections will be free and fair, but he has refused to say if he will end emergency laws before the polls. Western diplomats and Pakistani opposition parties say no free elections are possible under the laws.