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Pakistan Court Weighs Musharraf Re-Election Bid

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Pakistan's president got in political trouble this year by challenging his country's Supreme Court. Now that court is the forum where Pakistanis are challenging him.

General Pervez Musharraf is a critical U.S. ally against al-Qaida. But a presidential election is approaching, and Pakistan's highest court has begun hearing petitions asking that Musharraf be disqualified from running.

NPR's Philip Reeves was at the court.

(Soundbite of cars)

PHILIP REEVES: One by one, they pull up - sleek new cars carrying black-clad lawyers with armfuls of papers. They've come here to Pakistan's Supreme Court to grapple over the future of their military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf.

(Soundbite of protesters)

REEVES: These people have also come - angry-eyed men in baggy white clothes with beards and banners. They're from Pakistan's largest religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, led by Qazi Hussain Ahmad.

Mr. QAZI HUSSAIN AHMAD (Jamaat-e-Islami): This is the most important case which has been in the history of Pakistan honored by the Supreme Court.

REEVES: Qazi's party has filed one of a handful of petitions which a panel of nine judges will examine. These urge the judges to rule it illegal for Musharraf to stand for reelection as president - a view which Qazi obviously supports.

Mr. AHMAD: The Supreme Court should decide that the constitution is supreme and the armed forces will be told that they must abide by the constitution.

REEVES: Within the next few weeks, Musharraf will seek reelection from Pakistan's national and provincial parliaments, even though their terms are about to expire.

He faces two basic legal challenges. The first is over whether he can be president while remaining army chief. It's not entirely clear whether Musharraf actually intends to stay in uniform. One of his political allies said today he thought Musharraf will be sworn in as a civilian president in November. The second is about whether Musharraf can stand as president at all, even if he resigns from the military. The constitution says government servants must wait two years after retirement before running for office.

Pressure on Musharraf is building from many directions.

Mr. RAJA ZAFARUL HAQ (Opposition Spokesman): All blockade his election as president of Pakistan.

REEVES: That's Raja Zafarul Haq, spokesman for an alliance of opposition parties.

Mr. HAQ: Because he is not eligible to be elected. And the present assemblies are not eligible to elect anybody like him.

REEVES: Members of the alliance say they'll resign on masse from Pakistan's parliaments on the day the election commission accepts Musharraf's nomination.

But the general's political enemies are divided. Last week, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was sent humiliatingly back into exile in Saudi Arabia after attempting to return home. The Saudis said he had agreed with them to stay out of Pakistan for three more years. And Benazir Bhutto, who's flying home next month, may yet do a power sharing deal with Musharraf.

Musharraf's biggest worry is not the politicians; it's the Supreme Court. Behind the court stands Pakistan's entire legal community, civil society activists, and the media. Most of them seem confident Musharraf's candidacy for the president will be ruled illegal, yet no one here is sure how this crisis will play out. Many worry that if the Supreme Court goes against him, Musharraf may opt for emergency or martial law.

The crowd outside the court today was clear about what it wants.

(Soundbite of protesters)

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.