Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, is coming under intense criticism for unilaterally amending the country's constitution to boost his power. Most political parties, human rights groups and legal bodies have rejected these changes as a blow to the path toward democracy.
President Musharraf unveiled more than two dozen constitutional amendments on Wednesday, which give him new sweeping powers. They include the power to dismiss Parliament, extending his presidency by five years and the creation of a National Security Council, which gives the military a formal role in overseeing the government that is to be elected in October.
President Musharraf says the changes are intended to help nurture a sustainable, stable democracy in Pakistan.
But opposition political parties say the constitutional amendments will only undermine existing democratic institutions. Ehsan Iqbal is a spokesman for the political party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom General Musharraf ousted three years ago.
"How could there be a genuine democracy if there is a self-appointed president with the office of chief of army staff, with all the powers he is assuming through his constitutional amendments?," he asked. " There can be no fair and free Parliament. Actually what will happen is, if this path is followed, there will be a new crisis after the elections, there will be a confrontation between the Parliament and the president. And the political crisis is going to get much worse."
President Musharraf took power in a military coup in October 1999. The country's Supreme Court approved his action, but ordered him to hold national elections within three year to restore civilian rule. The court also granted him the power to amend the constitution, as he did Wednesday, to carry out political and economic reforms.
But legal experts question the legality of the Supreme Court's decision and say constitutional changes should only be made by Parliament.
"Parliament can make and unmake any law. The decision given by the highest court of the country can be set aside by a simple piece of legislation by the Parliament," said Ahmed Raza Qasuri, a senior Supreme Court lawyer and a former lawmaker. "So any body that has given the president advice to change his constitutional powers, somebody has to refer to the Supreme Court, well that is not the intention of the constitution."
President Musharraf says his amendments are final and that no elected Parliament will have the authority to approve or undo these changes.
Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the most powerful opposition group, the Pakistan People's Party, condemns the move as formalizing General Musharraf's dictatorship.
"General Pervez Musharraf should well have declared himself as the monarch and then declared his son as the heir apparent. And then he could say that this amendment will not be questioned in the Parliament. So we have rejected it, we will reject it. No civil society can endorse this," he said.
Mr. Babar also had harsh words for the newly created National Security Council, which will include senior military officials. The council will have the authority to oversee elected leaders.
"Making the National Security Council has been a long-held dream of the Bonapartist generals in Pakistan," he said. "They have long held that the civil-military equation in Pakistan should be re-written in such a way that it is first written on the military's terms and secondly that the military should have a permanent role in the country's politics. With the National Security Council in place, headed by the president and composed of un-elected people, three [armed] service chiefs and one chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and having the powers checks over not only the civil government but also the institutions of democracy, this alters the basic character of the constitution. "
Analysts say General Musharraf is moving Pakistan away from the path to democracy and international legal norms. Sameena Ahmed is the project director of the International Crisis Group an independent risk analysis agency. She says Pakistan's current constitution explicitly prohibits either the Supreme Court or President Musharraf from introducing constitutional changes.
"You can throw that out of the window and create another constitution is another fact. But if this is the constitution, the basic law of the land, the Supreme Court can't amend it," she noted. " And nor can it give anybody else the power to amend that constitution. To bring about these amendments now, six weeks before [the elections] and assume that Parliament will accept them, I think it's being a little optimistic."
Pakistan will hold parliamentary elections on October 10. Despite his new powers, President Musharraf insists he will transfer governing authority to the new prime minister. He also denies that the military will have a say in running the country.
Political analysts suggest little can be done in the short-term to challenge the new constitutional amendments. They say the next elections will be crucial and opposition parties need to win control of Parliament if they hope to reverse Mr. Musharraf's decree.