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Last Updated: Friday, 22 October, 2004, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
Commonwealth supports Musharraf
President Musharraf
Musharraf has indicated he may hang on to his uniform
The Commonwealth's top diplomat has supported the way Pakistan's President Musharraf is seeking parliamentary support to stay on as head of the army.

Don McKinnon said the move is democratic if parliament approves it.

General Musharraf says most Pakistanis want him to hold on to both posts, despite an earlier promise to step down as army chief by 31 December.

Pakistan was readmitted to the Commonwealth in May after a four year suspension following the 1999 coup.

The opposition says General Musharraf is bound by the constitution to resign as army chief. Any change to that, they argue, needs a two-thirds majority in parliament.

A bill has already been passed with a simple majority by the lower house of parliament to extend President Musharraf's term as army chief.

Mr McKinnon, the Commonwealth Secretary General, is on his first visit the country since the suspension was lifted and said that he wanted to improve relations with Pakistan.

"I am here to talk about more than so-called democratic issues," he said.

"I am here to really ensure that the engagements for Pakistan, between the Commonwealth and Pakistan... reaches once again its full breadth and depth."

Concern

At the time of readmitting Pakistan to the Commonwealth, the body said it would monitor its progress on democratic reforms and said it expected President Musharraf to honour his pledge to step down as army chief by the end of the year.

The important thing is that the issue was taken to the parliament and the parliament debated the issue
Don McKinnon
The BBC's Zaffar Abbas in Islamabad says Mr McKinnon's indirect endorsement of President Musharraf's move to hold on to the presidency as well as the post of army chief could not have come at a better time for the leader.

For the last several weeks, secular and religious opposition groups have been protesting against the government's decision to introduce a new law to allow General Musharraf to keep both the offices.

Opposition members say the move is unconstitutional and undermines the process of restoring democracy in the country.

On Friday, even as the Commonwealth secretary general was meeting President Musharraf in his office, there were rowdy scenes in the national parliament.

Opposition members disrupted the proceedings and denounced President Musharraf before walking out of the house.

Mr McKinnon, however, said after meeting the president that General Musharraf was seeking an extension of his position through parliament and as such could not be termed undemocratic.

"The important thing is that the issue was taken to the parliament and the parliament debated the issue," he said.

He told journalists that he had sought "some clarity" from General Musharraf over his future as army chief.

And he said Pakistan's judiciary should be the final arbiter in any dispute.

Last December, Islamic opposition parties reached a deal with General Musharraf that legitimised the 1999 coup.

One of the conditions of the deal was that he would resign as army chief at the end of this year.

Both the Islamic and secular opposition say that condition was also enshrined in a subsequent constitutional amendment.

General Musharraf's supporters dispute that. They also say he needs to stay on as army chief in the interests of national security.


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