Hours after US President George W Bush gave him an earful on democracy, Pakistan’s army chief Pervez Musharraf announced on Thursday that general elections in the country would be held before February 15.
“We are looking at a date where we can dissolve all the assemblies simultaneously and hold the election simultaneously for the national assembly and four provincial assemblies,” President Musharraf told state-run media after chairing a meeting of the National Security Council.
“Having calculated all this, we must hold elections before 15th of February 2008,” he said. “I have been saying for the last few months that elections will be held on schedule. There is no doubt in my mind that elections should be held on time as soon as possible… It was my commitment and I am fulfilling it.”
The general repeated his pledge to shed his uniform, but gave no date for doing so. He said that stepping down as army chief, which he has vowed to do, depended on a Supreme Court ruling on whether he had been eligible to stand for re-election last month.
“When they allow this notification, that is the time when I can take oath as president and remove the uniform,” said Musharraf, who has purged the Supreme Court bench and filled it with more compliant judges.
"You can't be the President and the head of the military at the same time," Bush said on Wednesday, telling reporters about the 20-minute telephone call he had with Musharraf. "I had a very frank discussion with him."
In Washington, the White House lauded Musharraf's vow to proceed with elections in Pakistan. "We think it is a good thing that President Musharraf has clarified the election date for the Pakistani people," Bush's press secretary Dana Perino said in a statement.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, head of the main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), said the new pledges did not go far enough. She said: "We want an election date, we want a retirement date... This is a vague statement. We want the uniform off by November 15."
Mass arrests of PPP supporters, meanwhile, continued ahead of a planned rally called by Benazir Bhutto on Friday in Rawalpindi. Bhutto has not bowed down to pressure from the government to cancel the rally or to stop a long march she has planned from November 13, say party leaders despite government fears that another suicide attack may be imminent.
It is believed that over 700 members were arrested overnight. The activities were held under emergency measures brought in last Saturday by. Separately, in Karachi, five people were charged with sedition, which can carry the death penalty.
The PPP wants General Musharraf to restore the constitution, hold elections and resign as head of the army. Bhutto is also demanding the release of lawyers, judges and activists detained in the past few days.
The authorities have warned that police will not allow the demonstration to go ahead. They say that there is a strong threat of a suicide attack in the rally and that is why they cannot allow it. Protests since emergency rule was brought in have been limited but political analysts say the Rawalpindi rally could raise the stakes dramatically in the country's political crisis.