Pakistan's Musharraf Calls Elections for October

Pakistani military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf announced legislative elections will be held Oct. 10, state television reported Wednesday. 

Interrupting its regular programming, Pakistan Television said the elections would be for the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, as well as the four provincial legislatures. 

Parliament was dissolved when Musharraf, the army chief of staff, seized power in a bloodless coup in October 1999, ousting the civilian elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. 

The Supreme Court had ordered Musharraf to hold elections by October 2002 and he had agreed. 

Musharraf will stay on as president after winning a referendum earlier this year which secured him a five-year term. 

But Musharraf will have to compromise on plans to change Pakistan's electoral laws if he wants to restore democracy, analysts warned Wednesday, two days before the military ruler makes a major speech to explain his plan. 

If he pushes through the reforms unchanged, Musharraf appears headed for a deadlock with civilian political leaders after the elections — with Musharraf holding ultimate political power but opposed by a hostile publicly elected legislature, political observers said. 

The proposed constitutional amendments include giving Musharraf the power to dismiss the entire Cabinet and Parliament and to name a successor to anyone he fires. 

The amendments would also shorten some elected terms, lower the voting age, require political candidates to hold a university degree and bar people convicted of crimes from holding office. 

Musharraf also promulgated an order banning any prime minister or provincial chief minister who has held the posts for two terms from holding them again. 

Political and other groups have decried the changes as undemocratic and discriminatory, and claim Musharraf is a military dictator trying to consolidate power before legislative elections by stripping parliament of its constitutional right to rule. 

Musharraf insists the changes are necessary to establish stable long-term democracy in volatile Pakistan. 

After a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, Musharraf promised that his speech on Friday would "take the nation into confidence" on national issues including the constitutional amendments, a government statement said. 

"Musharraf will never be able to get the support of main political parties after the elections if he fails to give them some concessions at this stage," said Irshad Haqqani, editor of Pakistan's largest-circulation newspaper, Jang. 

Khalid Rehman, executive director of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute, said urgent talks were needed between Musharraf and mainstream political leaders, and warned that problems on Pakistan's volatile political scene would continue as long as the rift lasts. 

"Musharraf will have to compromise on some of the electoral reforms and proposed constitutional amendments if he is really interested in restoring democracy and seeing political stability in Pakistan," Rehman said. 

After the speech, Musharraf will launch into a round of meetings with political leaders, media representatives and other groups to explain the changes, the statement said. Musharraf said he was pleased with the level of public debate about the proposals, and promised his speech would help people to understand the proposals better. 

Analysts said some of the proposed measures — such as barring criminals from contesting elections — would help stabilize Pakistan's notoriously volatile politics. Others seemed based in a fear that Musharraf might lose control after the elections. 

"The purpose of all these reforms and amendments is to enable Musharraf to rein in the next parliament," said Haqqani. "Musharraf fears that he may not be able to handle politicians in future." 

Rehman said that, whatever the outcome of the October elections, the military was unlikely to withdraw from the Pakistani political scene anytime soon — and civilian leaders should get used to it. 

"Like it or not ... the fact remains that you will have to share power with the army," Rehman said. "It's a reality that the army wants to share power." 

Pakistan has been ruled by the military for almost half of its existence since 1947. Three presidents have dismissed five elected governments since 1988.