Pakistani president gets vote of confidence

General to hold power until 2007 despite protests

January 02, 2004|By Paul Watson and Mubashir Zaidi | Paul Watson and Mubashir Zaidi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Legislators approved Gen. Pervez Musharraf's hold on power until at least 2007 yesterday, despite a walkout by opposition members of Parliament who insist that his rule is illegal.

The Pakistani leader, who seized power in a 1999 coup and has become a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, won votes of confidence in both houses of Parliament, the latest victory in his long struggle to legitimize his presidency.

The balloting came on the eve of a crucial summit of regional leaders. Musharraf will be the host of a two-day conference of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation starting Sunday in Pakistan's capital.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will attend, making his first visit to Pakistan in four years, and is expected to meet with Musharraf. Many people in India and Pakistan, weary of a 56-year conflict over the disputed Kashmir region, hope the summit will bring formal peace talks closer.

Masood Khan, spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, said this week that his government would not raise the Kashmir issue at the summit, respecting a long-standing tradition of the South Asian organization that countries should not raise bilateral issues. Leaders of the seven-nation group - which also includes Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives - are expected to sign a regional free trade agreement.

But most eyes will be on Vajpayee, Musharraf and Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali for any signs of warmer relations.

India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947 and which in recent years have become nuclear powers, reached another milestone yesterday on the difficult journey back to normal relations. A Pakistan International Airways 747 jumbo jet arrived in New Delhi from Lahore. It was the first commercial flight between the countries since India severed air links in 2002 after a terrorist attack on the Parliament buildings in New Delhi. India accused Pakistan of masterminding the assault, which Pakistan denied.

After yesterday's walkout by opposition lawmakers, Musharraf won support from 191 lawmakers in the 342-member National Assembly, with no votes against him. In the Senate, 56 members out of 100 voted in favor of Musharraf. One senator voted against him.

Assemblies in the nation's four provinces - Punjab, North-West Frontier, Baluchistan and Sindh - also approved Musharraf's rule despite walkouts.

In announcing the results on state-run television, the chief election commissioner, retired Justice Irshad Hasan Khan, declared that lawmakers had approved a five-year presidential term for Musharraf, beginning with a disputed 2002 referendum on his rule.

"Musharraf has staged another drama to get his illegal presidency validated," said Ahsan Iqbal, coordinator of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League. The party is led by Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister overthrown by Musharraf in 1999.

Musharraf's critics in the mainstream political opposition argue that he has empowered Islamic hard-liners by continuing a military alliance with Pakistan's mullahs that dates to the regime of former military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988.

To break a yearlong deadlock with an alliance led by Islamists in Parliament, Musharraf struck a deal last month in which he agreed to quit the military within a year to win support for his rule through at least 2007.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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