ISLAMABAD, Nov 22 (Reuters) Pakistan's Supreme Court, stacked with judges friendly to President Pervez Musharraf, was expected today to clear a final challenge to his re-election and pave the way for him to quit as army chief.
The long-awaited ruling comes as Musharraf today faced the prospect of a second suspension from the Commonwealth since he took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, as he continues to resist calls to fully lift emergency rule.
The Supreme Court has already thrown out five legal challenges to his October re-election by parliament while still serving as army chief, leaving just one -- which Attorney General Malik Qayyum said was stuck on a technicality.
''I expect it to be thrown out today,'' Qayyum told Reuters.
''The (presidential) oath can be taken ... by the weekend or immediately thereafter.'' Musharraf has repeatedly said he will relinquish his army post and be sworn in as a civilian leader for a second five-year term in what he calls a transition to civilian-led democracy once his re-election has been endorsed by the court.
Amid fears the Supreme Court ruling would go against him, Musharraf declared emergency rule on November 3, suspended the constitution, removed the chief justice and purged the court, installing more amenable judges -- and drawing widespread international condemnation.
The government has appealed to the Commonwealth of 53 nations not to follow through on a threat to suspend Pakistan for failing to meet a today deadline to end emergency rule among other steps.
While critical of his actions, the United States has given General Musharraf, a crucial ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, leeway to put things right before a general election on January 8 that the opposition may boycott.
BUSH PART OF PROBLEM? Some Pakistanis say US President George W Bush's support of Musharraf -- describing him as a valuable ally, a man of his word and committed to democracy -- is part of the problem.
''I am very angry with the attitude (Bush) is having towards the country, because he should realise that we as a nation have given him support,'' said human rights activist Shahnaz Bukhari, chief coordinator of the Progressive Women's Association.
''He should not think that what he is doing and what he is saying is good for our country... When American people come here they feel very insecure -- these are the reasons,'' she added. ''Bush is having this (kind of) democracy in the USA?'' Western governments fear that stifling democracy could play into the hands of Islamist militants threatening nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Musharraf has started to roll back the emergency, freeing around 5,000 lawyers, opposition and rights activists detained in a round up of opponents -- including cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
Many of the judges and leading lawyers who represented the strongest challenge to Musharraf's authority are still in prison or under house arrest.
Musharraf remains in danger of political isolation.
Talks with opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, whom he allowed to return from self-imposed exile last month without fear of prosecution on old graft charges, foundered after he declared the emergency, though some analysts see room for a deal to be revived.
The U.S. had hoped they would end up sharing power.
Musharraf has banished former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the man he deposed eight years ago, to Saudi Arabia -- though he has tried to reach out to him in recent months.
Investors in the Karachi stock market have taken heart from Bush's endorsement of Musharraf and the likelihood he will finally be sworn in for a second term, gaining 1.5 per cent yesterday to stand a little less than 3 per cent below pre-emergency levels.
Reuters SZ DB1120