Fury as Musharraf clears way to stand for election

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General Pervez Musharraf has secured a major victory after Pakistan's Supreme Court opened the way for him to again run as president while retaining his position as head of the armed forces.

In a controversial decision, the court ruled 6-3 against a series of constitutional challenges to the general's plans to stand. "These petitions are held to be non-maintainable," said presiding Judge Rana Bhagwandas, as lawyers inside the court howled in protest.

The decision – made in the absence of the Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhry, who recused himself – lifts the last genuine obstacle to General Musharraf's candidacy in the election that takes place next Saturday. Most commentators believe he will secure re-election, but not by a vast margin. "Absolutely, there is no hurdle [to him standing]," Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said after the court's decision.

The court did not explain its ruling, saying it would give its reasons later. But immediately there was outcry from those who were convinced the country's constitution would act as a block to General Musharraf seeking election while still in uniform.

Farid Piracha, a lawmaker for the Jamaat-e-Islami party which had filed one of the several challenges, said he refused to accept the decision. He said: "The judges have not fulfilled their constitutional obligation. Now our fight against dictatorship will be on the streets ... This decision does not reflect the sentiments of the people, and it will not be accepted."

A spokesman for the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who earlier this month was deported by the Musharraf regime when he tried to return to Islamabad to launch a challenge to the military leader, said its lawmakers would resign next week and boycott the election in an attempt to undermine its legitimacy.

Today, the country's Election Commission is due to assess the eligibility of the 43 presidential candidates that have filed papers. In reality there is no likelihood of the commission rejecting General Musharraf

Though Pakistan's constitution clearly says no government employee may stand for election within two years of resigning, General Musharraf was granted an exemption in 2002 – with the support of the religious parties. While many observers maintain it was special dispensation for one occasion, the commission has said that the exemption stands for this election.

Zaffar Abbas, an editor with the Dawn newspaper, said: "When the lawyers' movement succeeded in reinstating the chief justice [earlier this summer] they said that a new Supreme Court has emerged. The same court ruled that Nawaz Sharif had an 'inalienable right to return'.

"But what has happened since is the political class in this country ... has assumed all their problems can be solved by the Supreme Court. When it comes to political issues, and demands that it rule on major political disputes, this is asking too much."

The lawyers have vowed to continue their protests, with more legal challenges if the commission, as expected, approves the candidacy. "The war is not over. It was a skirmish. It was disappointing. But we will be back," said Munir Malik, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association,

If it goes ahead as planned, the election will be a showdown between General Musharraf and a former Supreme Court judge, Wajihuddin Ahmed.

How the system works

Pakistan's president is elected by lawmakers in both houses of the national assembly, and the four provincial assemblies. Members of the lower and upper houses – the national assembly and the senate – each have one vote.

Votes from the four provincial assemblies are calculated through a process that gives equal weighting to each province, regardless of the size of population. The provincial assembly in Punjab, the most populous province, therefore has an equal a say in the election as the Baluchistan assembly. General Musharraf assumed the office of president in June 2001, after serving as chief executive since mounting a bloodless coup in October 1999. He acquired wide-ranging powers through a series of constitutional amendments. In 2002, he was granted a five-year term after winning a referendum that was later approved by parliament.

Omar Waraich