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Emergency rule in Pakistan: Musharraf's last grab for power?

Citing terrorism and an 'activist' judiciary, the president says martial law will prevent the country from committing 'suicide.'

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In a dramatic move that made explicit his desperation to preserve near-absolute power, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency Saturday, effectively eliminating the opposition that has built against him in recent months.

In doing so, Mr. Musharraf introduced a new "provisional constitutional order" – a move many say looks more like martial law. Despite his assertions to the contrary, his decision has little to do with terrorism, analysts say, adding that his was a political calculation. With the Supreme Court threatening to declare his presidency illegal in a ruling this week, Musharraf struck preemptively against his foes.

Under the emergency order, he has sacked more than half of the Supreme Court, jailed up to 500 opposition party leaders, and shut down the independent media – assuming that the US has invested too much in him and the war on terror to withdraw its patronage. The order may also delay parliamentary elections, which had been scheduled to take place before Jan. 15.

It marks an important moment for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. As one of the last opposition figures who is not under arrest, she is uniquely situated to rally the masses against the president, says Hassan Askari Rizvi, an independent political scientist. Whether she does could determine how long Musharraf survives politically.

"Much depends on Bhutto," says Professor Rizvi. "If she decides to go to the streets, it can make an impact."

Over the long term, however, Musharraf's decision risks exposing his weaknesses further. During the five years since Pakistan's last elections, Musharraf has always had at least the appearance of a democratic government supporting him. Now, that has all but vanished, and if either Bhutto or the lawyers can mount significant public opposition to him, the Army might be left with no option but to dispense with one of their own – as they have done before.


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