President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday named an heir apparent to his position as military chief, choosing a close confidant who until last month headed Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service.
The selection of Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Kiani as the military’s vice chief of staff positions him to move into the top job if Musharraf vacates it. The announcement was seen as the clearest sign yet that the Pakistani leader intends to keep his promise to relinquish his army role after his expected election Saturday to a new presidential term.
However, Musharraf reneged several years ago on a pledge to give up his military job, and many observers remain skeptical that he will step aside as promised once he has been reelected by the national and regional assemblies.
Kiani, who was promoted to general as his new post was announced, has been a key intermediary in talks with Benazir Bhutto, an exiled former prime minister. Bhutto plans to return to Pakistan this month to lead her party in parliamentary elections, which are to take place by mid-January.
The two camps for months have discussed a power-sharing arrangement, but none has been announced. Kiani’s ascension could be a signal to Bhutto, whose politician father was executed by a military ruler, that the new military chief will be someone with whom she has a rapport.
In a suggestion that the outlines of a power-sharing accord are in place, a senior official said Tuesday that Musharraf’s Cabinet was prepared to grant Bhutto amnesty on pending corruption charges. Without it, she could face arrest upon her return.
Sheik Rashid Ahmed, a Cabinet minister, told Pakistan’s private GEO television that there was “a consensus of opinion” among the ministers that the charges against Bhutto should be set aside.
Bhutto’s key public demand has been that Musharraf relinquish his role as military chief if he wants to continue serving as president. Her party expressed disappointment when he announced last month that he would do so only after having secured reelection.
Kiani is a Musharraf loyalist who was previously handed the sensitive task of investigating assassination attempts against the president. Considered a moderate, he is well regarded by U.S. officials.
Opponents, meanwhile, made last-ditch efforts to prevent Musharraf’s reelection by lawmakers.
Two presidential candidates, retired Supreme Court Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed and Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the deputy head of Bhutto’s party, asked the high court to disqualify Musharraf from standing for another term while still army chief. Last week, the court declined to do so in regard to similar challenges.
Also Tuesday, more than 80 opposition lawmakers -- though not those in Bhutto’s party -- resigned en masse from the 342-member National Assembly in an effort to prevent the vote from taking place. Musharraf’s party says he still has sufficient votes to win.
Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party has suggested that its lawmakers would abstain from the vote, but party leaders said they would announce their intentions later in the week.
Times staff writer Laura King contributed to this report from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.