Pakistan's Musharraf to shed "second skin"

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 28 (Reuters) Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf is due to step down from the military today, giving up his job as army commander to become a civilian president ahead of national elections in January.

Musharraf will fulfil one of the long-held demands of his political rivals and Western allies when he takes off the uniform he has referred to as his ''second skin''.

For Musharraf, who seized control of Pakistan in a 1999 coup, command of the army has been his main source of power.

He now aims to become a civilian president, supported by his hand-picked successor as army commander, with a new prime minister heading the government after the January poll.

His power and influence are bound to be affected. The question is by how much.

''Many believe that giving away the core source of his strength, the command of a disciplined and professional army which was at his beck and call in every crisis, may prove to be an insurmountable weakness,'' the News newspaper said.

For the time being, Musharraf will retain powers under the emergency rule he imposed on November 3. He imposed the emergency in his capacity of army chief but transferred those powers to the presidency.

The United States and other Western allies, as well as the opposition, are pushing for the emergency to be lifted as soon as possible.

Musharraf will be replaced as army commander by his former intelligence chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. He is well regarded by Western counterparts and also worked with opposition leader Benazir Bhutto after she became prime minister in the late 1980s.

One of Musharraf's most pressing concerns now will be the January 8 election.

Musharraf has lost much popularity since March when he tried to fire the country's independent-minded top judge, and analysts say that could hurt his ruling Pakistan Muslim League party in the election.

But Musharraf will need support in what analysts expect will be a hung parliament where he could face impeachment over his manoeuvres to secure another term in office, which opponents say violated the constitution.

If his own party fares badly, he is going to need the help of religious parties or one or other of his old rivals, Bhutto or the prime minister Musharraf ousted in 1999, Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif returned to Pakistan on Sunday after seven years in exile.

He and Bhutto have both filed election nominations but both said they might still boycott the vote.

That would rob it of credibility and seriously undermine Musharraf's plans.

REUTERS SW KP1032

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