ISLAMABAD, Dec 31: The government and opposition are poised to begin a new phase of political confrontation between them on the new year day after President Pervez Musharraf announced his decision to remain army chief as well to ensure a continuity of his policies.
The president's formal announcement on Thursday of what he had decided long ago seemed to give a new cause to rival opposition alliances to close their ranks to confront him in what they see as a course to monopolise all power. But the protest "black day" to be marked on Saturday by both the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) and the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) alliance of six Islamic parties will not go unchallenged.
In what appears to be a tit-for-tat move, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) has planned a big welcome for President Musharraf in Gujrat which he and his loyalists could use to give a strong response to the opposition.
Political observers said the president appeared to have taken a path of no retreat and no compromise as he made no attempt to sweeten the bitter pill that he wanted his political opponents to swallow.
Though he mainly targeted the MMA in his Thursday's address to the nation while citing his grounds for not keeping a promise made a year ago to give up his army uniform by December 31, but he also gave no hope to other opposition forces despite weeks of a government-encouraged talk of possible moves for a reconciliation with mainstream parties leading the ARD.
The president's statement that the assemblies elected in 2002 will complete their five-year tenure particularly shattered ARD hopes for early mid-term elections.
Finding nothing encouraging for them, leaders of both the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N) had no hesitation in immediately joining voices with the MMA in spurning an apparently empty "hand of friendship" the president offered to the opposition at the end of his speech.
Although it will join Saturday's "black day" protests already announced by the MMA, the ARD said on Friday it had only taken "a decision in principle" yet for a joint campaign against the military presidency while its modalities would be discussed in an alliance meeting in Sukkur on Sunday before reaching a final decision.
BIG HITCH: Political sources said there still was a big hitch to be overcome to ensure a future ARD-MMA cooperation in light of what happened a year ago when the religious parties struck a separate deal with the ruling coalition to help it pass the 17th constitutional amendment to give parliamentary legitimacy to President Musharraf and his sweeping powers, in return for his promise to give up as army chief by December 31.
"The basic contention (between the two alliances) is that while the MMA opposes only the uniform of the president, the ARD challenges the whole of the 17th Amendment," PPP spokesman Senator Farhatullah Babar said about the amendment that made President Musharraf's controversial Legal Framework Order (LFO) part of the constitution.
The ARD fears it may be ditched mid-course again as happened the last time when MMA opted to engage in a dialogue with the government despite the ARD boycott and then made the deal on the 17th amendment after more than a year of combined noisy anti-LFO protests in parliament.
"In order to allay this apprehension we have asked the MMA to renounce its support for the 17th Amendment," Mr Babar said. MMA chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed has used some of his strongest words in denouncing what he calls the president's "breach of promise", it is yet to be seen whether his alliance will agree to the ARD condition for a grand alliance that can make things difficult for the government.
But Information and Broadcasting Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, as the government spokesman, threatened that the authorities would deal the situation with an "iron hand" if the opposition disturbed peace.
"He has closed ways for an honourable exit for himself," the MMA chief said about the president in an interview with a private television network as he condemned him for what he called confronting a big majority of people represented by both the MMA and ARD.
He said he hoped the opposition campaign would succeed in "closing the door of army's intervention in politics for ever". Mr Babar said the talk of reconciliation by government ministers following the recent release of former senator Asif Ali Zardari on bail after eight years in jail was meant to drive a wedge in opposition's ranks.