Court decision hangs over Musharraf's re-election bid

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ISLAMABAD, Sep 25 (Reuters) President Pervez Musharraf signed nomination papers today for his re-election, as lawyers defended him against legal challenges mounted by Pakistani parties opposed to army rule.

Months of uncertainty lie ahead, as US ally General Musharraf struggles to keep control in nuclear-armed Pakistan, a country whose support is seen as crucial to the success of Western efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and crush al Qaeda.

The National Assembly, Senate and provincial assemblies are scheduled to hold the presidential vote on October 6, before they are dissolved for a general election due by mid-January.

Musharraf signed his nomination papers, which will be submitted to the Election Commission on Thursday, a senior ruling party official told Reuters. The government also named alternative candidates in case Musharraf's papers are not accepted.

''Senate Chairman Mohammadmian Soomro and National Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Amir Hussain will be the covering candidates,'' Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, secretary-general of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) said.

DECISION IMMINENT The Supreme Court began hearing challenges to Musharraf's re-election on September 17 and a decision is expected imminently.

Opposition party workers were in hiding after more than 100 were arrests in polices raids that began at the weekend, a spokesman for the party of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted in a coup eight years ago.

They had planned to besiege the Election Commission and the Supreme Court, and the government wanted to stop them putting pressure on judges hearing the case, according to officials.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in rare criticism of Musharraf's government, said yesterday the arrests were troubling.

The US embassy called for the release of detainees and urged free and fair elections.

So-called ''preventive detentions'' are a common tactic in Pakistan and people are usually only held briefly.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema, asked about the US criticism, said: ''Pakistan knows best''.

OPPOSITION THREAT The court is hearing three petitions challenging Musharraf's right to retain the posts of president and army chief, the legality of being elected in uniform, and whether he can get a mandate from outgoing assemblies.

Three other petitions were dismissed on technicalities.

Attorney-General Malik Abdul Qayyum told the court the challenges lacked merit.

''They want to disrupt the election, they don't want this election to go ahead,'' Qayyum said.

Musharraf, whose main source of power is the military, has said he would quit the army after winning another term.

Qayyum said if not re-elected, Musharraf would remain army chief until a new president nominated a commander.

Musharraf holds his dual office under a law that expires at the end of the year. His term as president expires on November 15.

If the court blocks Musharraf's re-election, analysts say he might impose emergency rule, or dissolve parliament and seek a mandate from assemblies that emerge from the general election.

Musharraf has held inconclusive talks with Benazir Bhutto, another former premier living in exile, about a possible post-election power-sharing arrangement.

Pakistani shares edged down as investors, hoping for Musharraf's re-election, awaited the court ruling, dealers said.

An opposition alliance led by Sharif's party has said it would resign from assemblies if the Election Commission accepts Musharraf's nomination papers.

However, it said its upper house Senators would vote for Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former Supreme Court judge who resigned in 2000 after refusing to swear allegiance to Musharraf.

The threat to quit the assemblies lacks real bite unless Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party joins in.

An opposition walk-out would not stop the vote -- Musharraf only needs a majority of votes cast -- but it would rob it of credibility and detract from its legitimacy.

Bhutto, who plans to return from self-exile on October 18, insists Musharraf should become a civilian president but has not closed doors to a deal, so long as Musharraf becomes a civilian president and meets a string of other demands.

REUTERS AE RAI2051

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