It is not hard to imagine the political implications of the Federal Cabinet's decision to secure a fresh five-year mandate from the old assemblies for President Pervez Musharraf.
The patently provocative move, observers here said, will hasten unity among Opposition parties, given their steadfast refusal to let the General keep the uniform.
The Cabinet met under Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in Islamabad on Wednesday. "The decision was reached after consultation with Constitutional experts," Information Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani told pressmen. The Cabinet also decided that the ruling coalition comprising the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the breakaway PPP groups will jointly contest the general elections.
Re-election by the existing assemblies has been speculated as an option available to Musharraf in the face of the Opposition's unwillingness to countenance him in the army chief's role. But the Cabinet move has triggered a furious debate.
"How can the assemblies nearing the end of their terms, elect a president for five years. What legitimacy will Musharraf have if people vote out his supporters in the general elections," asked Pakistan People's Party (PPP) leader Aitzaz Ahsan. He said the move was "politically immoral" and legally incorrect. It violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution.
The reaction of the PPP's partner in the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD), the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, is no different. "How can a Parliament with a five year term give someone ten-year tenure in office," protested PML (N) information secretary Ahsan Iqbal.
Certain political observers, including Ahsan, also a leading Constitutional expert, believe there is more to the decision than what meets the eye. Interpreting it as a subterfuge for snap general elections to catch the disunited Opposition off-guard, the PPP leader told HT, "It isn't normal for the Cabinet to decide a Constitutional question nine months ahead of the deadline."
Indeed, Musharraf's term expires in November along with that of the presidency's electoral-college: the national assembly, the senate and the four provincial assemblies. The election is scheduled between September 15 and October 15 because the Constitution mandates its conduct not less than 30 and not more than 60 days before the expiry of the President's term.
Unsure of the numbers in the new assemblies, Musharraf's purpose ostensibly is to get another term without visiting the uniform issue. His first, self-announced deadline for giving up the army chief's post was December 31, 2004.
He later got it extended till November 15, 2007 under the 17th constitutional amendment the Parliament voted on December 31, 2003 with the support of the mullah conglomeration of Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) that is now crying foul.
"Musharraf can win the presidency by a simple majority. But he'll require 2/3rd majority for another constitutional amendment to retain the uniform after the expiry of the deadline enshrined in the 17th amendment," explained a politician who did not wish to be named. The Constitution's Article 43 that will then come into play, places the presidency out of the reach of the holders of "any other office in the service of Pakistan".
So, will Musharraf use his renewed presidency to navigate the general elections - to be held within 90 days after November 15 - in the ruling PML-Q's favour or is there hope of a deal being negotiated with the PPP? "In Pakistan, the only thing about which you can speak with certainty is the past," responded Ahsan.
From available indications, there is a strong possibility of the ARD and the MMA resigning their assembly seats en masse before Musharraf's election. "MMA's Jamiat-ul-UIema-e-Islam can render the electoral college incomplete by dissolving the NWFP assembly where it has the numbers," said columnist Imtiaz Alam.
The constitutional crisis in that event will be surmountable only by a provisional constitutional order affording Musharraf the leeway of a referendum or elections by local bodies.
Alam said the president cannot push "enlightened moderation" without the support of mass-based parties. To make that happen, he must share power - not perpetuate control.