ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (MCT) President Pervez Musharraf said Sunday elections will be held by Jan. 9 to usher Pakistan out of its political crisis. But he said the vote must be held under his emergency rule regime, which has jailed thousands of his opponents and decapitated the judiciary.
Many Pakistanis were immediately skeptical, saying no free election can be held under the crackdown.
Speaking at a press conference, Musharraf said he will take office as a civilian president whenever the Supreme Court rules on challenges to his election last month. He appeared to imply, but did not directly state, that he would give up his post as army commander at the same time.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Musharraf's announcement a "positive element." But, speaking on ABC television, she added that "he needs to lift the state of emergency" and restore the constitution "as soon as possible."
Musharraf's main political rival, Benazir Bhutto, called the election plan "a positive step to defuse the situation to some extent." But she added, "Musharraf should retire from his army post, restore the judiciary, release the political activists and restore the constitution."
Bhutto, a former prime minister, said she has not "shut the doors to negotiation" with Musharraf, but she continued working to build political pressure against him. She flew to the eastern city of Lahore, where she plans to begin a 170-mile procession back to Islamabad Tuesday with a phalanx of supporters.
As often during this crisis, Bhutto was milder in her reaction to Musharraf than were many Pakistanis. Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, called Musharraf's plan "a conspiracy ... (with) his cronies to rig the elections." Musharraf has ensured that Sharif, exiled in Saudi Arabia, remains excluded from any participation in the election.
A week after he declared emergency rule, Musharraf further tightened his grip, ruling that civilians could be tried before military courts for crimes that include "giving statements conducive to public mischief." Independent TV stations remain blacked out and Musharraf is gradually appointing pliant judges to replace those, in the Supreme Court and other high tribunals, who rejected his seizure of total government powers.
In a country where scholars say elections routinely have been tilted or rigged by the several military and civilian intelligence agencies, many Pakistanis say an independent media and Supreme Court is essential to improving chances for a fair vote this time.
"The media and judiciary are the two institutions that have been creating hope" for greater democracy, said Fahad Khan, an economics teacher in Islamabad who is supporting a grass-roots protest movement against Musharraf. "Now those institutions are being ruined," he said.
Musharraf ruled out any notion of restoring the dismissed Supreme Court judges, particularly the independent-minded chief justice, Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Musharraf seized emergency powers and scrapped the Supreme Court when it became clear that the Chaudhry-led court was ready to invalidate his controversial election as president last month. Many Pakistanis say that vote was illegitimate, in part because the constitution forbids a uniformed military officer from running for office.