Islamabad, Pakistan Despite widespread criticism, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf unilaterally amended the Pakistani constitution Wednesday, granting himself sweeping powers including the right to dissolve parliament and extending his term in office.
"Pakistan is passing through a very crucial transitional period," Musharraf told reporters in announcing his decision. "We are taking Pakistan from democratic dictatorship to elected democracy. I want to introduce a sustainable democratic order."
Critics, however, claimed the 29 amendments were a blow to the very democracy that Musharraf promised to restore by conducting elections Oct. 10 for the national parliament.
"We don't believe that an individual or group has the right to amend the constitution," said Raza Rabbai of the opposition Pakistan People's Party, led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. "This is the sole prerogative of the parliament."
Other amendments formalized an additional five years in office for Musharraf that he won in a controversial referendum in April. He also gave the military a formal role in governing the nation for the first time by setting up a National Security Council that would oversee elected rulers and include military officials.
"Musharraf has grabbed all the power and the next prime minister will be helpless," said Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, head of the opposition Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy.
Musharraf seized power on Oct. 12, 1999, in a bloodless coup that toppled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The Supreme Court ruled that the coup was legal but insisted that civilian government be restored within three years. Musharraf called elections for Oct. 10 two days short of the deadline.
However, Musharraf, like many of his colleagues in the senior ranks of the armed forces, has accused previous elected administrations of failing to govern properly. He has promised to build a "guided democracy" in which elected leaders would be held accountable through a series of "checks and balances" contained in the amendments.
One of them grants the president the authority to dissolve parliament, a power that the late President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq decreed but was abolished by Sharif.
Another amendment set up the National Security Council, chaired by the president, to oversee the performance of parliament, the prime minister and his government. The council will also include the leader of the opposition in parliament, the military chief of staff and heads of the army, air force and navy.
That gives the armed forces a formal role for the first time in the ruling of a country that has been under military rule for about half its 55 years of independence.
Musharraf insisted, however, that he would transfer governing powers to the new prime minister who will be chosen by parliament and denied that the military would have a role in governance.
"The National Security Council has absolutely nothing to do with running the country," Musharraf said. He said its role would be limited to consultation on strategic issues and matters of national importance.
Critics have accused Musharraf of skillfully using his position as the linchpin of the U.S. war against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan to shore up his position at home.
After the 1999 coup, Musharraf was shunned by the United States and its Western allies. All that changed when Musharraf abandoned support for the Afghan Taliban and joined the U.S.-led war against terrorism.