Page last updated at 16:35 GMT, Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Musharraf's parting message to the army

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

President Pervez Musharraf reviews guard of honour in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on 28 November
President Musharraf was visibly moved to be leaving the army

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's parting speech to the troops on Wednesday not only contained emotions at the ending of his 46-year-long career in the army, but also a subtle message.

"This army is an integrating force, the saviour of Pakistan," he said. "Without it, the entity of Pakistan cannot exist."

The statement was followed by criticism of those who "raise fingers at this army".

"They are lost people," he said. "They don't know that the army has played an important role in the integration and development of Pakistan."

In recent months, the political role of the army has come under widespread criticism from all the opposition parties, lawyers, journalists and human rights groups.

Challenges ahead

Were the president's remarks an invitation to the army to protect Pakistan against those "lost people", or was he just making a casual remark about the political situation of the country?

Pakistan's leader knows that a wider outbreak of street protests could force the army to intervene

Analysts will debate the speech in the coming days.

But there are no two views on the fact that he will need all the help he can get from the army as he completes his transition from a military to a civilian ruler.

Government circles are confident that his support in the army is not likely to be shaken if the country's transition to democracy goes smoothly.

"Besides being the army's most recent chief, he will continue to be the supreme commander of the armed forces in his capacity as the country's president," Advocate General Malik Abdul Qayum told a Pakistani TV channel recently.

This will help President Musharraf keep in touch with the affairs of the army.

Traditionally, it is the head of the army and the chiefs of two intelligence services, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Military Intelligence (MI), who seek to exercise direct influence over political decision-making when they feel the need arises.

The present holders of those posts were hand picked by President Musharraf, apparently on the basis of his understanding of their loyalty and competence.

Besides, they will be under pressure to support President Musharraf in order to stabilise their own newly acquired positions.

However, much will depend on how different players on the country's political chessboard play themselves out in the run-up to parliamentary elections due in January.

Lawyers celebrate the stepping down of President Musharraf as army chief, in Peshawar 28 November 2007
Lawyers have led anti-government protests

President Musharraf enters the fray with a huge baggage of controversies.

The foremost is his recent re-election as president, which was being reviewed by the country's Supreme Court when he imposed emergency rule and sacked the judges.

He also faces two major political rivals and former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who ended their exile recently.

Both were away from the country when elections were held in 2002.

This made it easy for the pro-Musharraf PML-Q party to capture power, albeit with the help of the intelligence agencies.

But the political scenario this time around is far more complex. And there is international pressure for a fair election.

Nawaz Sharif has taken a tough line on the issue of the judiciary. He is demanding the restoration of all the sacked judges before he can consider participating in the elections.

He has also ruled out any working relationship with Pervez Musharraf, even as a civilian president.

Reluctant democrat

Ms Bhutto can save the day for President Musharraf by resuming talks for a smooth transition to democracy that she broke off following the imposition of emergency rule on 3 November.

Benazir Bhutto, Karachi, 28 November 2007
Benazir Bhutto could still decide President Musharraf's future

But she feels her electoral prospects are threatened by President Musharraf's unilateral decision to appoint an interim government of mostly PML-Q party-men to supervise the elections.

She has also expressed reservations about the independence of the Election Commission and the soundness of voting procedures.

In recent days, her party has been in touch with Mr Sharif's PML-N to explore the possibility of co-operation. Mr Sharif is reportedly pushing for a more overt anti-Musharraf agenda.

The proposals include a possible election boycott, and electoral alliance in Punjab to defeat the PML-Q.

Both these leaders have so far refrained from joining the simmering countrywide protests by lawyers and civil society groups against President Musharraf.

But if Ms Bhutto's concerns are not addressed, she may come round to Mr Sharif's hard line on President Musharraf.

Pakistan's leader knows that a wider outbreak of street protests could force the army to intervene.

And he is more likely to become a casualty because he would then appear more clearly to have been a part of the problem than of the solution.

But he also appears reluctant to stop at his own re-election as president and open up the field to political groups for competitive elections.

There are clear indications that he would like to see the PML-Q do better than it possibly can in a free and fair election.

His remarks on Wednesday may well have been directed at the military leadership's shared wish to stop politicians they oppose from winning full powers in a real democracy.

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