Islamabad: President Pervez Musharraf lifted 42-day emergency rule in Pakistan and restored the constitution on 15 December, in a move the Western nations hope will stabilise the nuclear-armed state as Islamic militant violence spirals.
But critics say curbs on the media and a purged judiciary will remain in place and Musharraf can still manipulate a 8 January general election victory for his parliamentary allies and secure a power base despite his unpopularity.
“We consider the lifting of the state of emergency an important step forward,” opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto told reporters in the southwestern city of Quetta soon after the end of the emergency was announced.
“But more needs to be done for the restoration of democracy.”
Citing militant violence and a meddling judiciary, Musharraf imposed the emergency on 3 November, suspended the constitution and purged the Supreme Court to fend off challenges to his re-election, which new hand-picked judges later rubber-stamped.
But he faced international condemnation for his actions, with Western countries worried he would only further polarise Pakistan and leave a vacuum that Islamic militants fighting an insurgency near the border with Afghanistan could fill.
Two soldiers and three civilians were killed near a Pakistani army camp by a suicide bomber on a bicycle on Saturday, underscoring a growing number of insurgent attacks this year in which hundreds of people have been killed.
Musharraf, who will address the nation on TV and radio tonight, took fresh oaths of office from the Supreme Court judges appointed after he imposed the emergency.
Musharraf also issued a decree protecting him from legal challenges over his actions during the emergency, something previous military rulers in Pakistan have done.
However, some lawyers and judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who were deposed by Musharraf are still under house arrest. The Pakistani media criticised this week a ban on live broadcasts as an attempt to control election coverage.
The end of the emergency may not change that.
“This emergency was staged to perpetuate one-man rule,” said Akbar Ali, an employee at a car leasing company in the main northwestern city of Peshawar. “There is no guarantee he won’t stage this emergency again if he sees his rule in danger.”
Election monitors and many politicians fear Musharraf, despite calls for a fair vote, can rig the polls through a network of district chiefs, bogus votes and by excluding opposition supporters from ballot stations.
Critics point out that Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup but stepped down as army chief last month, still lives in his army house.
The election is essentially a three-way battle between parties loyal to Musharraf and the parties of two main opposition leaders, former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Bhutto.
An opposition-run parliament could move to impeach the general over accusations he acted unconstitutionally in securing a new term as president.