ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - While the government hailed an end to emergency rule, many Pakistani politicians, voters and the media said on Sunday that President Pervez Musharraf remained entrenched in power with elections next month skewed in his favour.
A slew of amendments and orders passed on Saturday along with the restoration of the constitution stipulated courts cannot challenge actions by Musharraf during the emergency, and protected the legal status of his re-election as president.
For his critics, it was further evidence the unpopular Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup but since quit as military chief, would perpetuate himself in power by manipulating a victory for his allies in a January 8 parliamentary election.
“He is a dictator who takes illegal steps and the gives them indemnity himself,” opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan after years in exile, told local media.
The other main opposition leader, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, welcomed the lifting of emergency rule but said “more needs to be done for the restoration of democracy.”
Citing militant violence and a meddling judiciary, Musharraf imposed the emergency on November 3, suspended the constitution and purged the Supreme Court to fend off challenges to his re-election, which new hand-picked judges later rubber-stamped.
But he met with international criticism, with Western countries worried he would further polarise the nuclear-armed state and leave a vacuum that Islamic militants fighting an insurgency near the border with Afghanistan could fill.
Several Supreme Court judges and lawyers remained under house arrest on Sunday and curbs still prohibit television from live election broadcasts or lampooning the government. One of the biggest channels is still off the air for defying the government.
“It will make no difference at all,” said Tariq Mahmood, a lawyer under house arrest since emergency rule was imposed.
“I don’t think I will be released until after the election.”
Many politicians fear a compliant judiciary will allow Musharraf to rig polls with a network of local chiefs, bogus votes and excluding opposition supporters from ballot stations.
The new amendments also further cement in legal terms his reshuffle of the judiciary with new hand picked judges. On Saturday, Musharraf took fresh oaths of office from the Supreme Court judges appointed after he imposed the emergency.
The election is essentially a three-way battle between parties loyal to Musharraf and the parties of two main opposition leaders, former prime ministers Sharif and Bhutto.
The stakes are high. An opposition-run parliament could move to impeach the general over accusations he acted unconstitutionally in securing a new term as president.
Musharraf hinted in his address to the nation on Saturday night that he would still have limits to tolerating dissent.
“No person will be allowed to do agitational politics,” he said. “I appeal all the Pakistani nation not to take part in street agitation or any agitational politics.”
The Dawn newspaper encapsulated widespread scepticism, with its Sunday editorial headline — “Will it make any difference?”
The News said “President Musharraf has secured his flanks, inducted a new pliant and cooperative judiciary.
But Musharraf said rigging fears were “totally baseless.” One newspaper said he had done all that was asked of him.
“The world ... asked him to retire from the army., it wanted him to lift Emergency ... and it had demanded that no postponement be made to the 2008 elections,” the Daily Times said.
“He has done all this.”
For Pakistanis worried about bread and butter issues like inflation as well as militant violence, the argument rang hollow.
Militant attacks continued unabated during the emergency.
“It will be preposterous to think the threat of terrorism and militancy has finished or minimise as the result of the emergency,” said retired Gen. Talat Masood, a security analyst.
“It was bullshit,” said Sadia Hamid Khan, a 29-year-old trainer with a multinational firm in the eastern city of Lahore.
“He wanted to be president and he’s got it and now there was no need of that (the emergency) so he’s lifted it.”
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani