ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The Election Commission announced a rule change Monday that would apparently allow President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to seek a new, five-year term while still serving as army chief.
Opposition parties insist the U.S.-backed Musharraf is ineligible to run, but the commission said it had changed a rule so that a key article of the constitution no longer applied.
"The chief election commissioner of Pakistan has made the requisite amendment, with the approval of the president," the commission said in a statement.
The rule change drew an outraged response from opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. She also accused Musharraf's allies of leading the country toward a dangerous crisis by refusing to restore democracy and share power.
Bhutto predicted the decision would enrage the same lawyers who led the campaign for the restoration of Pakistan's independent-minded top judge whom Musharraf tried to remove from office in March, sparking a pro-democracy protest movement. The Supreme Court later reinstated the judge.
"All political parties, irrespective of whether they were moderates or religious, regional or national, came together to back the lawyers and their movement and I think the same would happen again," Bhutto told The Associated Press late Sunday, when Pakistani media first reported the rule change.
She said her party may join other opposition groups in resigning from parliament. She said that for Musharraf to seek re-election in uniform would be "illegal."
Pakistan's political turmoil is deepening as Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and became a key U.S. ally after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, tries to extend his rule. He wants lawmakers to vote him back in by mid-October, but faces tough legal and political obstacles.
Musharraf's term expires Nov. 15. The president is elected in a vote by all members of Pakistan's provincial and national assemblies.
Musharraf's standing has plummeted since March, and he is also struggling to contain a surge in attacks by pro-Taliban militants near the border with Afghanistan.
Last week, he sidelined his chief political rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, sending him back into exile. But in doing that, he set up another showdown with the Supreme Court that had earlier ruled that Sharif could return to Pakistan.
Bhutto has been in talks with Musharraf on a pact including constitutional amendments to defuse the legal challenges to his re-election and let her return and seek a third term as premier in parliamentary elections due by January.
Negotiations have snagged over Musharraf's reluctance to cede his sweeping powers.
Monday's announcement by the election commission, however, seemed to remove the need for such a pact.
The election commission said it was updating its rules to reflect Supreme Court rulings in 2002 and 2005 that Article 63 of the constitution did not apply to Musharraf. The article includes a bar on government servants running for election that some legal experts argue prevents Musharraf from seeking another term.
The article also says that former government servants must wait for two years before they become eligible to run. Some argue that makes Musharraf ineligible even if he quits as army chief.
Information Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani said the government was not involved in the rule change. He defended the Election Commission's announcement, saying it had only amended the election rules in accordance with court rulings.
On Monday, the Supreme Court resumed hearing six petitions, including one by Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest Islamist group, on Musharraf's eligibility to stand again. Their eventual verdict could override the decision of the Election Commission.
Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said that, with the cases pending in court, the Election Commission was "reluctant" to announce the schedule for the presidential election. Ruling party lawmakers have said it will be held in early October.