Three weeks ahead of a vital summit with India, Pakistan's military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, has carried out a constitutional coup sacking the President to have himself sworn in as successor and dissolvingparliament.
General Musharraf, who has been Pakistan's "chief executive" since ousting the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless military coup in October 1999, took the presidential oath yesterday in a short ceremony at the presidential palace in Islamabad taken by Chief Justice Irshad Hasan Khan and attended by the senior army and civilian figures.
Earlier, the General had dissolved the already suspended National Assembly and Senate, and dismissed President Rafiq Tarar, a primarily ceremonial figure who has little say in the running of the country.
That, however, is likely to change whether yesterday's move, as critics fear, sounds the death knell of civilian rule in Pakistan, or whether, as General Musharraf's supporters pledge, it is a required first step before parliamentary elections promised by October 2002.
In London the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw expressed his "deep concern" at what he said was a set back in Pakistan's return to democracy. Mr Straw said it was now all the more important that elections "proceed quickly, within a clear constitutional framework".
Only the timing of General Musharraf's assumption of the Presidency a repeat of the course taken by General Zia ul-Haq after the last military coup in 1977 was a surprise.
For months his supporters have been dropping hints that he would assume the presidency once a new parliament had been elected and a prime minister was in office. His decision to act now is widely seen as a means of enhancing his authority ahead of a summit with India's Prime Minister, Atal Vajpayee, on 14 July.
Though little concrete progress is expected on the Kashmir dispute the main topic on the agenda Delhi and Islamabad have been signalling that they want an improvement in their fraught relations.
Yesterday General Musharraf talked briefly by telephone with Mr Vajpayee. The two sides' claims to divided Kashmir are as irreconcilable as ever, with India rejecting all outside mediation while Pakistan stands by UN resolutions stating that the territory's future is for its people to decide.
But the Indian leader's invitation to his Pakistani counterpart to the three-day meeting after initially refusing even to recognise the Musharraf regime suggests that Delhi is seeking to reduce tensions with its arch rival.
The acid test of General Musharraf's intentions will be whether he fulfills his promise that democracy in the form of parliamentary elections would be restored within three years of his takeover, once the reforms he had set in motion had become irreversible.
Yesterday, the new President was modesty personified, vowing that the elections would be held on schedule and that he himself would continue "to serve the nation with all humility." He had been mulling the change for several months, he said. "It's one of the most difficult decisions I have taken; it was the most difficult decision because it involved myself."
Pakistan's disgraced political parties did not see it that way, however. A spokesman for the Pakistan People's Party of Benazir Bhutto whose father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed on General Zia's orders on murder charges in 1979 accused General Musharraf of aiming to "crush democracy once and for all," while the Pakistan Muslim League said the change of president was a sign that the military would stay in power, whatever it took.
Ordinary Pakistanis are, however, still inclined to give the General the benefit of the doubt.
They are tired of political instability, welcoming of his campaign to stamp out corruption and impressed by the government's efforts to put the economy on an even keel.Reuse content