ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Opposition parties denounced constitutional amendments granting President Gen. Pervez Musharraf sweeping powers, calling them a blow to democracy and vowing to repeal them if they win control of parliament in the October elections.
Analysts said the opposition had little alternative but to put aside their differences and try to win control of parliament in the Oct. 10 balloting.
During a two-hour press conference Wednesday, Musharraf, who seized power in an October 1999 bloodless coup, announced he had unilaterally decreed 29 amendments to the constitution, granting himself the power to dismiss parliament, establishing a National Security Council to oversee the government and extending his stay in office by five years.
Opposition politicians said the move effectively hamstrings the next prime minister and parliament. Major parties said changes to the constitution could only be made by parliament and accused Musharraf of seeking to perpetuate dictatorship under the guise of democracy.
The Pakistan People's Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, believed to be the strongest opposition party, said Musharraf "might as well declare himself as the absolute monarch for life." The party insisted that only parliament had the right to change the constitution.
"Musharraf has grabbed all the powers and the next prime minister will be helpless," Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy told reporters in Lahore. "Musharraf got the power to dissolve the parliament to blackmail the future prime ministers and members of the parliament so that they don't take any action against him."
The spokesman for the main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, said the amendments made a mockery of pledges to restore democracy. The spokesman, Ameerul Azeem, said the opposition would "undo these amendments if voted into power by the people of Pakistan."
Sadique al-Farooq, spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League, said his party would use all means short of violence to challenge Musharraf's rule.
"Now the ball is in the court of all those forces who believe in a true democratic system," Farooq said.
Analyst Khalid Mehmood of the Institute of Regional Studies said the opposition's options were limited and their best hope was a strong showing in the October balloting.
"All the political parties and intellectuals and lawyers are of the common opinion that the government is not authorized in its present state to amend the constitution," Mehmood told The Associated Press. "But Musharraf is doing it and all the political parties have to bear it. They can't do anything right now except to take part in the coming elections. The future depends upon the new parliament."
During the last year, political commentators have said Musharraf has skillfully used his position as the linchpin of the U.S. war against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan to shore up his position at home without criticism from Washington or other major capitals.
After the 1999 coup, Musharraf was shunned by the United States and its Western allies. All that changed when he abandoned support for the Afghan Taliban and joined the U.S.-led war against terrorism, allowing the Americans to use bases in this country and helping track down Taliban and al-Qaida fugitives who fled here last year.
In announcing the amendments, Musharraf argued the changes were necessary for stability and accountability in a political culture marked by decades of military government and civilian misrule.
"Pakistan is passing through a very crucial transitional period,'' Musharraf said. ``We are taking Pakistan from democratic dictatorship to elected democracy. I want to introduce a sustainable democratic order."
One amendment formalized an additional five years in office for Musharraf that he won in a controversial referendum in April. Another gave the military a formal role in governing the nation for the first time by setting up a National Security Council to oversee elected rulers — and include senior military officials.
Amendments also grant the president the authority to dissolve parliament, a power which the late President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq decreed but which was abolished by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted nearly three years ago.
The president will also be able to appoint the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the heads of all three military branches. That power had been held by the prime minister.
Despite his new powers, Musharraf insisted that he would transfer governing authority to the new prime minister, who will be chosen by parliament, and denied that the military would have a role in governance.
"The National Security Council has absolutely nothing to do with running the country," Musharraf said. He said its role would be limited to consultation on strategic issues and matters of national importance.
"I have made these amendments in the larger interest of the country," Musharraf said. "I want to see sustainable democracy in Pakistan."