ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf assured his full support on Sunday for an incoming government that will almost certainly be led by a prime minister he had jailed for over four years.
The Pakistan People’s Party of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto nominated Yousaf Raza Gilani for the premiership on Saturday, though it remains unclear whether Gilani is a stop-gap, keeping the seat warm for Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower.
“The country is passing through a difficult phase and I need prayers and cooperation of the entire nation,” Gilani, a former Speaker in the National Assembly, told journalists as he went to parliament to file his nomination papers.
He is expected to win with a thumping majority when the National Assembly votes on Monday, particularly after a regional pro-Musharraf party pledged its support. Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, a senior leader of Musharraf’s main allied party, on Sunday said he would challenge Gilani in the vote.
On Tuesday, if everything goes smoothly, Musharraf will swear in Gilani, who he jailed in 2001 on charges of making illegal appointments and was freed in 2006.
U.S. ally Musharraf, who came to power as a general following a coup in 1999, is politically isolated since the defeat of his allies in a parliamentary election on February 18, and there is intense speculation that he will soon be forced out.
“Whichever new government is formed, it will enjoy my full support,” Musharraf said in a televised speech while addressing an annual military parade at a sports stadium in Islamabad.
Dressed in a white sherwani, a traditional South Asian frock coat, Musharraf attended the ceremony for the first time as a civilian to commemorate the day Muslim agitators in the Indian independence movement passed a resolution in 1940 to work for the formation of Pakistan.
Western allies and neighbors India and Afghanistan fear political instability in a nuclear-armed Pakistan, already under siege from within by al Qaeda inspired militants.
Musharraf stepped down as army chief in November, weakening ties with an institution that was his greatest source of power, and has implored the incoming federal and provincial governments to avoid confrontation as he struggles to keep his presidency.
“I hope that these governments will maintain political peace … and will continue the struggle against terrorism and extremism with the same force,” Musharraf said.
While in prison, Gilani, a soft-spoken, resolute character, wrote a book that advocated a strong military, but one that was removed from politics.
He has called for the repeal of constitutional changes made by Musharraf to bolster his authority, including power to dismiss a government. The PPP-led coalition nearly has the two-thirds majority in parliament that is needed to amend the constitution.
JUDGES WAITING FOR RELEASE
Pakistanis yearn for civilian-led democracy in a country that has been ruled by coup-making generals for more than half the time since it was founded in 1947.
The stunted political development, along with the fallout from U.S. and Saudi support for Islamist fighters in a war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s helped sow the seeds of militancy plaguing Pakistan today.
Pakistan has reeled from a wave of suicide attacks and militant violence since troops stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque last July.
With his popularity plunging, Musharraf was re-elected president by the pliant previous assembly in October, but resorted to emergency rule in November in order to purge judges who may have ruled his re-election unconstitutional.
While the emergency was lifted after six weeks, 10 judges remain under house arrest, including former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
PPP leader Zardari signed an accord earlier this month with Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf deposed, to form a coalition and both leaders promised to reinstate the judges, who could reopen challenges to Musharraf’s presidency.