Pakistan entered political limbo on Sunday, caught between Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s presidential election win and a future court ruling on whether he was even eligible to run.
Musharraf on Saturday scored an overwhelming victory in a ballot of lawmakers boycotted by much of the opposition in protest against the U.S.-allied military leader.
The country must now wait at least 10 days for the Supreme Court to either confirm the result or disqualify Musharraf because of his retention of his powerful role as army chief.
While many observers doubt that the judges will dare to rule against the military strongman, The Nation newspaper printed a cartoon on Sunday showing Musharraf frowning toward the Supreme Court, his fingers crossed behind his back.
“The government cannot afford to take the courts for granted,” an editorial in the Lahore-based daily said.
Saturday’s election has gone down among the most controversial in Pakistan’s turbulent 60-year history, when the military has regularly intervened in politics.
Musharraf’s won 671 votes, while a retired judge who was his main rival received just eight. In all, 1,170 federal and provincial lawmakers were eligible to vote.
Musharraf dismissed criticism that the boycott had undermined the legitimacy of the election.
“Democracy means majority, whether there is opposition or no opposition,” he told reporters on the lawn of his official residence. “A majority, a vast majority, have voted for me and therefore that result is the result.”
But an opposition alliance including the party of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf toppled in a 1999 coup, said the vote was illegitimate. “The election has no moral or constitutional value,” Raja Zafarul Haq, a leader of the alliance, told The Associated Press on Sunday.
He said leaders of the All Parties Democratic Movement would meet in the coming days to plan protests against Musharraf, though its strike call on Saturday was widely ignored.
The Supreme Court already dismissed several complaints that Musharraf was ineligible under a constitutional bar on public servants running for office.
But while considering fresh petitions on Friday, it decided that while the election should go ahead, the results cannot be declared official until it has issued its verdict.
That took the edge off government celebrations marked with firework displays in Islamabad and each of Pakistan’s four provincial capitals on Saturday.
Still, Musharraf allies took heart that the court had allowed the vote to be held among lawmakers chosen in flawed 2002 polls rather than wait for parliamentary elections due by January, where his allies may lose ground.
To shore up his support, Musharraf has held talks with Benazir Bhutto, another former prime minister, which could lead to them sharing power in the next Parliament.
On Friday, Musharraf signed into law an amnesty quashing corruption cases pending against Bhutto, paving the way for her planned return on Pakistan on October 18.
The date appeared chosen to avoid disrupting Musharraf's re-election plan.
Bhutto’s secular, liberal party has also snubbed the broader opposition alliance, which includes Islamist parties opposed to Pakistan's frontline role in Washington's war on terror. However, the Supreme Court has said it will resume hearing the petitions against Musharraf only on October 17.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, argues that he should stay on to ensure that Pakistan enjoys a smooth transition to civilian rule and to redouble its fight against extremism. He has promised to leave the army before starting a new five-year term.
Yet his standing and authority crumbled after a clumsy attempt to fire the chief justice of the Supreme Court in March. His government also gets the blame for a gaping divide between rich and poor that has widened despite an economic boom.
Some analysts worry that the bitter political wrangling will distract Pakistan from its struggle against Taliban and al-Qaida militants who appear to be consolidating their control over a swath of territory near the Afghan border.