Islamabad, Oct 6: Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf goes into a presidential contest today sure of polling enough votes to win re-election, but uncertain whether the Supreme Court will let him claim victory.
The court ruled yesterday that the vote in the two-chamber parliament and four provincial assemblies could go ahead, but no winner would be declared until it decided whether Musharraf was eligible to run for office while still army chief.
The secret ballot was set to begin at 10 am (1030 hrs IST) and finish by 3 pm (1530 hrs IST), with the tally completed later in the day.
Doubt whether the election result would stand added to uncertainty in nuclear-armed Pakistan as it entered a transition to civilian rule that will culminate in a general election due by mid-January.
The ruling coalition's majority should ensure that Musharraf will beat two rival candidates, but his fate will be undecided until at least October 17, when the court is due to reconvene.
''I am fully confident that the Supreme Court will give a balanced judgment,'' Musharraf said during a phone-in on Pakistan Television, adding that the court had now recognised his right to seek election by the current parliament.
If re-elected US ally Musharraf has promised to quit the army and be sworn in as a civilian leader just over eight years after coming to power in a coup.
The outcome is of vital interest to the West, which needs Pakistan's support for its efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and nullify the threat from al Qaeda.
Sharif Out, Bhutto Win
The candidate that obtains the most votes in today's ballot wins and Musharraf's task has been made easier by the resignation of more than 160 assembly members belonging to an opposition alliance led by Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted in 1999 and later exiled.
On the eve of the election, Musharraf appeared to have averted a walk-out by the biggest opposition party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto.
Musharraf and Bhutto have for months been talking about a power-sharing deal that would help the president broaden his base of support and clear the way for self-exiled Bhutto's return to politics, possibly as prime minister for a third time.
Yesterday, Musharraf met one of her main demands.
He annulled corruption charges against her and other civilian leaders, paving the way for her return after more than eight years to lead her party into the general election.
Bhutto said on Thursday that, once the charges were out of the way, the PPP would not join the rest of the opposition trying to spoil the credibility of the presidential vote by quitting parliament.
She said her party would abstain or vote for its own candidate, senior PPP official Makhdoom Amin Faheem.
The other main candidate is Wajihuddin Ahmed, who was nominated by anti-government lawyers.