ISLAMABAD, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf lifted emergency rule Saturday, six weeks to the day after he suspended the constitution and fired most of the Supreme Court justices.
In a speech to the nation Saturday night, Musharraf said his imposition of emergency rule had succeeded in saving the country from an unidentified "conspiracy" against democracy in Pakistan. "I say it with pride that the process towards democracy, which had been derailed, has now been put back on track," he said.
But his political opponents vigorously disagreed, saying the president had succeeded only in saving himself.
The decision to end the emergency had little tangible impact. Numerous top judges remained under house arrest Saturday, a restrictive new code of conduct continued to hobble the news media, and the nation hurtled toward parliamentary elections early next month that are widely expected to be rigged.
But an end to the emergency had been a key demand of the United States and other Western countries. The Bush administration had pressured Musharraf to take a series of steps to prove he was serious about returning the country to democracy, a list that included scheduling elections and resigning as army chief both of which he has done.
Before lifting the emergency Saturday, Musharraf enacted constitutional amendments designed to provide legal cover for his actions. Among them is a provision stating that his legal maneuvering since Nov. 3 "shall not be called in question by or before any court."
Since imposing the emergency, Musharraf has consolidated his control, with his government rounding up thousands of dissidents and violently suppressing protests. While most of the political prisoners have been released, a few including key leaders of the lawyers' movement are still being held. Independent-minded judges who refused to endorse Musharraf's plans, including former chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, have not been able to leave their homes since the emergency began and have been allowed only limited contact with the outside world.
Saturday's amendments are unlikely to deter Musharraf's rivals from using any leverage they gain in next month's elections to try to punish him: Opposition politicians have said they will push to have Musharraf impeached, and some have vowed to pursue treason charges against him.
Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for a rival political group led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, called Musharraf's lifting of the emergency "a public relations gimmick."
"He should be charged with subverting the constitution," Iqbal said. "He has to be held accountable."
Iqbal said the amendments designed to protect Musharraf have "no legal meaning or consequence."
Even critics concede that the emergency has worked for Musharraf at least in the short term. At the time of the announcement, the Supreme Court was hearing a challenge to his eligibility to serve another term as president. Many, including members of Musharraf's inner circle, expected the court to rule against him.
Now the court is packed with Musharraf loyalists, who have already given the president their blessing for a new term that lasts until 2012. The opposition, meanwhile, has been unable to mount a united front to challenge him.
But analysts say the emergency could still haunt Musharraf down the line.
"In the narrow sense, it has been successful for him," said Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst. "But in the long term, it has damaged him immensely. He has lost his popularity. He has lost his credibility. People are not going to accept him, except under duress."
A recent opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute found that 67 percent of Pakistanis surveyed want him to resign immediately and that the main pro-Musharraf political party is similarly reviled. Independent observers have said they see evidence that the parliamentary elections, slated for Jan. 8, are being rigged to favor Musharraf's allies.
Until this year, Musharraf who came to power in a 1999 military-led coup had enjoyed relatively broad support in Pakistan. But in March, he tried to fire Chaudhry, and the country has been embroiled in deep political turmoil ever since.
Musharraf said Saturday night that members of the judiciary presumably including Chaudhry had been part of a plot to destabilize Pakistan. He did not supply details, or evidence. But he said the path is now clear for the country to hold free and fair elections, a step that he said would complete the nation's return to democracy. "Nobody will be allowed to sabotage this process," he said.
The lifting of the emergency Saturday technically means that the public can once again enjoy basic rights such as freedom of assembly, but in reality the justice system has ground to a halt. The vast majority of lawyers refuse to acknowledge Musharraf's handpicked judges and have been boycotting the courts.
Musharraf said that in addition to curbing the influence of renegade judges, the emergency had succeeded in halting the spread of religious extremism in Pakistan. He cited a crucial victory by the Pakistan army in the restive Swat Valley and said the government would soon put together an aid package to help residents who were affected by the fighting.
But hours before the emergency was lifted, there was a reminder that the insurgent threat remains: A man pedaling a bicycle blew himself up outside an army supply center in the northwest, killing five.