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Musharraf bars predecessors from PM role

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf has issued a decree that effectively bars his two predecessors from becoming prime minister after elections scheduled for October, or of ever holding that office again.

The decree, issued late on Saturday night, comes just days after Musharraf proposed other constitutional changes that would give him sweeping powers to dictate the country's affairs.

The latest appears aimed directly at his two predecessors -- Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, who between them held the premiership twice each between 1988 and 1999 and still command significant power bases in the country.

The decree says any person who had held the office of the prime minister of the country or chief minister of a province for two terms would not be qualified to run again -- even if either term had not fully been served.

"It is necessary to strengthen the democratic institutions by putting limitations for holding the highest public offices for not more than the specified terms," the official APP news agency quoted the decree as saying.

Musharraf frequently accuses both Sharif and Bhutto of looting the country and has said neither would be allowed to run in October's elections.

Analysts say the army fears that Bhutto in particular could harness her popular support and the machinery of her Pakistan People's Party to do well in the elections if she were to return to Pakistan from exile.

Sustainable democracy

APP said the decree was aimed at consolidating measures taken by Musharraf "for the achievement of the objective of reconstruction of the institutions of State for establishing genuine and sustainable democracy to ensure good governance for an irreversible transfer of power to the people of Pakistan."

Musharraf seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1999 by ousting Sharif, declaring himself President and then extending his rule for another five years following a controversial referendum in April.

Pakistan was a parliamentary democracy at partition from India and independence from Britain in 1947, with the president no more than a figurehead.

A succession of military rulers undermined parliament's legitimacy, concluding with General Zia ul-Haq becoming President and making that position the strongest in the country.

Nawaz Sharif gradually brought power back into parliament, stripping the president of the right to dismiss the government or call elections, but his term ended when he tried to dismiss Musharraf as military chief.

Pakistan's current constitution makes no mention of how many terms a prime minister can serve, although it bars anyone from being president for more than two consecutive tenures.

The mainstream political parties -- Bhutto's PPP and Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League (PML) -- have denounced Musharraf's earlier proposals as a move to cement power with the generals, who have ruled Pakistan for more than half its 55-year existence.

Bhutto went into self-imposed exile in early 1999 for fear of being arrested on charges of corruption. Musharraf sent Sharif into 10 years exile in Saudi Arabia in December 2000.

Their parties are now members of major opposition Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) that has been demanding Musharraf stands down and lets a neutral caretaker government oversee October's elections.

Although critizised by some opponents, Musharraf has won widespread admiration abroad for his backing for the U.S.-led coalition against terror following the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

As a neighbour of Afghanistan and former supporter of the ousted Taliban regime, Pakistan has been a key player in the hunt for chief September 11 suspect Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.




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